U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who pushed through an unprecedented level of change in K-12 education in his nearly seven years in office, has announced that he’s stepping down in December.
John King, who is currently filling the duties of the deputy secretary of education, will head up the department as acting secretary until the end of the Obama administration.
The news comes as Congress wrestles with a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Both a bipartisan Senate education committee bill and a Republican-backed House bill would take aim at the administration’s most-cherished priorities, including teacher evaluation through student outcomes, college-and career-ready standards, and aggressive school turnarounds.
The rapid pace of change Duncan and his team initiated on the nation’s schools—especially through its Race to the Top competition and waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of ESEA—has lead to massive blowback from everyone from teachers to state chiefs and the administration’s own Democratic allies in Congress. King’s appointment, though unofficial, may put a fresh face on the administration’s efforts on K-12 policy at a critical moment, as Congress wrestles with the future of the federal role.
Duncan, the former Chicago schools chief, is one of just two original cabinet members left. And he started out in the job in an enviable position.
He had the backing of both national teachers’ unions and the most knowledgeable Republican in Congress on education issues—Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called him the administration’s best cabinet pick.
What’s more, Duncan and his department were handed unprecedented federal resources to push through big changes in education through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The legislation included $100 billion for education, $5 billion of which the administration was able to use to prod states and districts to adopt its priorities. The administration bet big on teacher evaluation through student outcomes and rewarded states for adopting college-and career-ready standards and assessments, linking teacher data to student outcomes, and removing charter school caps. The program, Race to the Top, wrought big changes nationally, including beyond the dozen states that won the grants.
Two years later, with reauthorization of NCLB languishing in Congress, the administration gave states the opportunity to apply for conditional waivers from the law’s mandates.
The waivers called for states to put in place teacher evaluation systems linked to student outcomes at exactly the same time they were moving forward on new standards to prepare students for college and the workforce - and new assessments linked those standards.
“He was just at the right place at the right time,” said Mike Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “Congress gave him a huge amount of authority with Race to the Top, a blank check for $4 billion. It empowered him to be the most powerful education secretary ever. And he was happy to wield that power. He then doubled down on that with conditional waivers... That left a bad taste in the mouths of conservatives and led to a lot of the backlash we’re seeing today.”
But Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius dismissed the notion that Duncan had pushed for an overly aggressive federal role in education.
She said Duncan had no choice but to act boldly, because of the urgent need to improve the nation’s schools—and because of Congress’ failure to act in reauthorizing ESEA, leaving states to cope with a bad policy.
“If [efforts to fix ESEA] are stalling out, and children are under-performing, and schools are screaming for help, you’ve got to do something,” said Cassellius. “You need a solution.”
So much change, so fast, from the top down has lead to turbulent implementation of those policies and major political opposition. Duncan and his department moved the goal posts on pieces of the waiver policy, particularly teacher evaluations through test scores, but states continued to struggle with implementation.
The ESEA bills in both the House and Senate are just the latest in a long string of reactions to what Duncan’s loudest critics have considered as major overreach on the part of an Education Department that pushed through too much change to the nation’s schools too quickly.
Now, Congress is mulling NCLB rewrite legislation that would essentially—and deliberately—place a straitjacket around the Education Department’s ability to influence state policy, knee-capping the federal role in education for the foreseeable future.
And last year, the National Education Association called for Duncan’s resignation. And the American Federation of Teachers put him on an improvement plan.
But, in an interview with me last month, Duncan was unapologetic about the direction he’d taken. In fact, he said he wished he had done waivers earlier.
“We have 44 pretty happy customers across the political spectrum,” he said of the states that have take the department up on the flexibility. “To be more helpful to children and more supportive of teachers and schools, we should have known Congress was good at talking but not good at acting, and the fact is that we hurt kids and hurt teachers and wasted so much of our time. That was a big mistake.”
Duncan also took flak for several public relations gaffes, at one point calling Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happen to the education system in New Orleans.” Later, he painted opposition to the Common Core as the product of “white suburban moms” fretting about lower student performance.
The man who is slated to replace Duncan is also no stranger to controversy. King, who was never confirmed by the Senate, had a tumultuous tenure as New York’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014. The state teachers’ union voted “no confidence” in his policies and called for his resignation in 2013, primarily over what it saw as a bungled implementation of the Common Core State Standards and an aggressive roll-out of new licensing exams for teachers. (Great, authoritative profile of King here.)
In an interview earlier this year, King, the son of educators, talked about the role his teachers had in giving him a chance to succeed. “Teachers could have looked at me and said here’s an African-American male Latino student with a home life in crisis in an urban public school and what chance does he have? But instead they looked at me and they saw an opportunity to help me grow academically.”
Andrew Rotherham, the co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, predicted that King could face some of the same political pushback as his predecessor.
“John’s going to be a political lightning rod around the common core stuff ... the evaluation stuff, all the controversy there,” he said. (Rotherham works with John King’s wife.)
King has never been confirmed by the Senate, and it’s unclear if that will create legal hurdles with Republicans in Congress, or be a non-issue. But, behind the scenes, staffers aren’t happy.
“It’s unsurprising that this administration is blatantly disregarding the constitutional requirement for the Senate’s role on advice and consent of a cabinet secretary,” a Senate GOP said, “So much for the so-called constitutional scholar in the White House.”
A big question going forward: What happens with ESEA reauthorization? The House and Senate have each passed bills, but the resignation of Rep. John A. Boehner, the speaker of the House, seemed to throw up another potential roadblock to a final bill.
Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, praised Duncan’s work for children—and made it clear she still wants to go forward with ESEA.
“I have been proud to work with [Duncan] as we fight to fix the badly broken No Child Left Behind law, and I look forward to his continued engagement over the next few months as Congress works to finish this bipartisan process and send President Obama a bill that he can sign into law,” she said in a statement.
But others aren’t sure it’s going to happen.
“The reality is for [ESEA] to go through, everything has to go right. For it not to go through only one thing has to go wrong,” Rotherham said. “This confuses an already confused environment.”
But a GOP Senate aide said Duncan’s resignation could actually speed things along, in part because the secretary has become such a toxic force on Capitol Hill. The aide said the conferees are shooting to the finish the conference report over the next several weeks.
“I was a huge fan,” said Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “The reform community has been a huge fan of the secretary because of his commitment to accountability, charter schools, and also his pragmatic approach to solving problems. He was not an ideologue. ... The person who is taking over for him is John King, who is an equally respected friend of the reform movement.”
Here’s what Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers had to say: “When President Obama and Arne Duncan came into office, we were in the midst of a great recession. We are grateful for the stimulus money we all fought for because it provided a crucial lifeline to schools throughout the country suffering from crippling austerity and budget cuts. We also want to acknowledge the work to lower student debt, protect students from predatory practices by for-profit colleges, provide equity for low-income children, expand early childhood education and highlight the importance of teacher leadership and career and technical education.
“At the same time, there’s no question that the Department of Education’s fixation on charters and high-stakes testing has not worked. Deep public discontent, parental anger, teacher demoralization and the teacher shortage have their roots in the misuse of testing. Equally concerning is the move at the department and in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia to once again squeeze out or close many public schools and replace them with charters, an approach that is becoming the new silver bullet. That’s why we are disappointed to hear that Deputy Secretary of Education John King Jr. will be appointed as the acting secretary. No one doubts John’s commitment to children, but his tenure as New York state’s education commissioner created so much polarization in the state with parents and educators alike that even Gov. Andrew Cuomo is finally doing a mea culpa over the obsession with testing. We can only hope that King has learned a thing or two since his tenure in New York.”
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, took a somewhat softer tone. “NEA and Sec. Duncan have always been in clear agreement with the secretary that we need to strengthen public education and make sure all students have the opportunity to succeed. He has made important strides in the promotion of early childhood education, college affordability and teacher leadership.
“We’ve also had our disagreements. There is a lot to be done to ensure the success of all our students, including fixing overtesting and making sure every child in every zip code has a quality education.”
Stephen Sawchuk, Sean Cavanagh, Arianna Prothero, Catherine Gewertz, and Liana Heitin contributed.
Photo: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan takes the stage before President Barack Obama arrives for a town hall with high school juniors, seniors and their parents at North High School in Des Moines last month.—Andrew Harnik/AP