School & District Management

Leadership Issues Could Cloud Federal K-12 Picture

By Alyson Klein — October 12, 2015 6 min read
President Barack Obama pats U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s back as Duncan announces that he will be stepping down in December after seven years in the administration.
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The one-two punch of turnover in the top leadership of Congress and the U.S. Department of Education complicates the prospects for completing unfinished business on the federal K-12 policy agenda.

As both Speaker of the House John A. Boehner and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan prepare to step down, the inevitable uncertainty during such transitions further unsettles the outlook for an Elementary and Secondary Education Act overhaul and for any new regulatory moves by the Obama administration.

With or without Duncan at the helm, it’s unclear just how much political juice the Education Department has left to work its policy will on states.

Unlike its first years in office, when the administration was flush with one-time education funding under the federal economic-stimulus package, the department doesn’t have much money left to entice states to adopt its priorities through competitive grants.

Hot Seat

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has announced his resignation effective in December, is the ninth secretary to helm the U.S. Department of Education since its birth as a cabinet-level department in 1980. Here’s a list of those who have served as secretary and the presidents who appointed them.


Shirley M. Hufstedler: 1980-1981 (President Jimmy Carter)


Terrel H. Bell: 1981-1985 (President Ronald Reagan)


William J. Bennett: 1985-1988 (Reagan)


Lauro F. Cavazos: 1988-1990 (Reagan/President George H.W. Bush)


Lamar Alexander: 1991-1993 (President George H.W. Bush)


Richard W. Riley: 1993-2001 (President Bill Clinton)


Rod Paige: 2001-2005 (President George W. Bush)


Margaret Spellings: 2005-2009 (President George W. Bush)


Arne Duncan: 2009- (President Barack Obama)

SOURCE: Education Week

And it seems reluctant to drop the hammer on states to drive policy—for instance, by withholding aid or pulling a state’s waiver from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, the ESEA’s current version.

“What’s in their toolbox?” said Terry Holliday, a former Kentucky commissioner of education.

And he doesn’t think John B. King Jr., the former New York state schools chief who will serve as acting secretary after Duncan leaves in December, is a throw-thunderbolts-from-Washington kind of guy.

“I don’t think John King will have the desire to really create a lot of mandates on states,” Holliday said. “I think having been a former chief helps, and I think he’ll try to work with states to honor their work over the last several years.”

That power drain is typical for the end of any administration and would likely have happened even if Duncan, who came in with President Barack Obama in 2009, had stuck it out until the end.

As an administration draws to a close, “essentially you’re trying to keep the policies and practices and pushing hard in places as much as possible,” said Sandy Kress, who served in the White House during President George W. Bush’s tenure.

“And you maybe try to repair and restore where there may be some ill will,” Kress said. “You keep one eye on the Hill, and the other eye is simply trying to keep the machinery running. You want to end on as good a note as you can.”

ESEA Pending

The most obvious outstanding piece of business for the administration: reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

It looked as if this was finally going to be the year for the rewrite, which has been stalled since 2007. Over the summer, the Senate passed a bipartisan revision of the law, and the House passed one with Republican support only.

Both bills would take aim at the administration’s priorities—including teacher evaluation based in part on student outcomes—and both would quash the education secretary’s power to dictate details of state accountability systems

The bills’ sponsors and the White House appear eager to get ESEA reauthorization completed, and congressional and administration aides are said to be working feverishly, with an eye to finishing the bill this fall. But lawmakers face a crowded legislative calendar, including a pending fight over lifting the federal debt ceiling.

And the administration and congressional Republicans are searching for the sweet spot when it comes to accountability: The administration has made it clear that neither bill does enough, in its view, to prod states to look out for low-performing schools and students.

Plus, the news of Duncan’s plans to leave his job came on the heels of another blockbuster resignation: Boehner, the Ohio Republican who is the House speaker and was an architect of the No Child Left Behind law, announced in late September that he would step down at the end of October.

But as of late last week, it was unclear exactly who would take his place. Meanwhile, Boehner said he would stay until a new speaker is in place, potentially giving ESEA negotiators time to pass a bill under his leadership.

What’s more, over the summer, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee and the author of the chamber’s bill to rewrite the ESEA, announced his coming retirement from Congress.

Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the National Education Association, which would like to see the law renewed, thinks the trio of impending departures could add urgency to the proceedings.

“Certainly no one was expecting Secretary Duncan to leave at this time,” she said. “But the reality is that this is now the third departure of a significant player. It adds emphasis to the need to get this done now.”

And a Senate GOP aide said that some Republicans had been worried that Duncan, who has faced criticism for doing an end-run around Congress by giving more than 40 states waivers from many of the mandates of NCLB, would overstep his bounds in regulating under the new law. Having Duncan out of the picture could actually prove helpful to a reauthorization, the aide said.

But not everyone is convinced the secretary’s move will matter much, one way or the other.

“I don’t know that it changes anything,” said Kati Haycock, the president of The Education Trust, an advocacy organization that looks out for poor and minority children. “I’m still quite optimistic we’re going to get this done. I’d still put it probably over a 60 percent chance. I think members of Congress really, really want to reauthorize this law.”

No Policy Shifts

Unfinished Business

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan leaves in December at a time when the Education Department still confronts a number of high-profile policy issues. Among them:

Elementary and Secondary Education Act Renewal
Both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives have passed bills to renew the law, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act, and a conference committee is working to reconcile the two measures.

NCLB Waivers
The department must monitor implementation of waivers from mandates of the law granted to 43 state and the District of Columbia.

State Assessment Peer Reviews
A panel of experts will help decide if state tests meet federal criteria, considering whether they are aligned to academic standards and include all students.

States’ Teacher-Equity Plans
Last summer, states submitted plans explaining how they will improve teacher distribution and quality. The department has approved 16 so far. The rest are pending.

Teacher-Preparation Regulations
The administration is aiming to finalize regulations that would strengthen federal accountability requirements for teacher preparation.

SOURCE: Education Week

The Education Department has a lot of regulatory business left on its plate: approving and monitoring NCLB waivers and teacher-equity plans; finalizing regulations beefing up teacher colleges’ accountability; and overseeing “peer review” of state assessments, in which experts will gauge whether state tests pass muster in certain areas, including alignment to state academic standards.

There won’t be a major change of course on any key outstanding business, said Matt Lehrich, a spokesman for the department.

“As Arne, John [King], and the president all made clear, ... there is no change to our agenda,” he said in an email. “We will continue to fight every day to ensure that every student in America—regardless of ZIP code—has a fair shot at a great education from preschool through college or career training.

“Lots of hard, important work remains,” Lehrich said, “and we will continue to use every avenue at our disposal to enhance educational opportunity for all children.”

Chad Aldeman, who served in the Education Department earlier in the Obama administration, notes that the same team of career staff and political appointees will be working with states on those initiatives, no matter who is in the secretary’s office.

“The people who know all the details of the state waivers are still the same people,” said Aldeman, who is now an associate partner at Bellwether Education, a consulting organization. “I would assume, for the most part, they’ll still be making decisions to the extent they can on precedents.

“The department has approved waiver renewals for nearly every state that asked for one; only Colorado and Louisiana have been left hanging. About half of states can even keep their flexibility until the 2017-18 school year or longer, beyond the end of the Obama administration.

But more than a dozen states received one-year renewals, meaning the department will have to reconsider their status next summer.

And two states—South Dakota and Texas—are in danger of losing their waivers. Both states are protesting the designation.

In fact, the Lone Star State has openly defied the department, saying it has no interest in crafting a performance-review system just to meet federal parameters.

Complicating matters: Few observers expect the next administration—Republican or Democratic—to hold the line on the waiver system that Duncan and company set up.

“Texas and other states are agreeing to the waivers, knowing when they come due that these guys are going to be gone,” said Kress, the George W. Bush adviser. “I don’t see anyone on either side who will keep these waivers going any longer, and the states know that.”

Associate Editor Stephen Sawchuk and Assistant Editor Liana Heitin contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Leadership Issues Cloud Federal Ed. Policy Picture


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