Ten years from now, most people will probably remember U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s tenure for Race to the Top, changes to teacher evaluation, and Common Core politics.
But his final speech—at Saint Sabina’s Church on Chicago’s gritty south side—centered on something else entirely: Gun violence and its impact on thousands of children around the country.
Duncan was introduced by Christina Waters, a former Chicago public school student, who barely survived a shooting at a church picnic in 2009. Duncan visited Waters in the hospital as she fought for her life.
Duncan’s voice broke with emotion as he talked about the 16,000 children killed by gun violence across the country during his first six years as secretary of education.
“This is a national crisis,” said Duncan, who officially steps down from his post Thursday. “It’s a tragedy no family should have to live through.”
And gun violence does more than just shorten some students’ lives, he said. It changes their expectations for the future. He recalled hearing from one young woman in Baltimore that 60 percent of her friends didn’t expect it to make it to the age of 23.
If young people “honestly don’t believe in their heart that they are going to live past 23, what does that do to their decision making?” he asked.
Duncan also chided Congress for failing to pass even basic gun-restriction legislation—saying that lawmakers’ are out of step with public opinion.
Even though the push to combat gun violence probably isn’t the policy Duncan will be best remembered for, it’s hardly a new area of interest for him. He’s been an outspoken advocate on this issue since his time as superintendent of Chicago Public schools. He was even named the most “anti-gun” member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet by the National Rifle Association.
He used the bully pulpit at the helm of the Education Department to talk about gun violence, helping with the administration’s response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. And in his final speech before announcing his resignation this fall, he proposed shifting $15 billion in state prison spending to teacher pay.
Duncan’s speech also touched on some of greatest hits. He mentioned, for instance that graduation rates are at an all-time high of 82 percent. (He didn’t mention that scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have fallen for the first time in more than two decades, though).
And he said it’s fitting that his final speech, which he pegged as his 257th, was in a church basement—since it was his mother’s tutoring program, also held in a church basement, that inspired him to go into education in the first place.
“My life’s work started in a church basement,” he said. “This feels like home.”
Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan —Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP-File