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Duncan Takes Sides in State, Local Education Debates

By Michele McNeil — March 16, 2011 2 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—who often reminds folks that, as a local school superintendent, he did not appreciate interference from Washington—continues to insert himself in state and local debates.

Sometimes he’s asked, sometimes he’s not. And some of the issues he’s gotten himself involved in are far more political than others.

On Monday, Duncan appeared via webcast in Washington state to support Gov. Chris Gregoire’s plan to consolidate education functions into a single Department of Education under the governor’s control. Under her proposal, the state’s separately elected superintendent of public instruction would be required to collaborate and coordinate with a new governor-appointed education secretary. (Thanks to Gov. Gregoire’s office for clarifying that her legislation would not actually eliminate the state superintendent’s position.) The legislature is skeptical—as is usually the case when a governor tries to get more power over something—so Duncan helped put some ooomph into the Democratic governor’s push. Last week, he penned a guest column in the Seattle Times also endorsing the consolidation measure.

Current Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn didn’t appreciate Duncan’s intervention.

“With all due respect to Secretary Duncan,” Dorn wrote, “this Washington is different than the other Washington, and different from Chicago—the secretary’s home town.”

In February, Duncan got involved in the heated battle over collective bargaining in Wisconsin. And he also told the Atlanta School Board, whose high schools were put on probation by a major accrediting agency, to get its act together.

In January, he urged new Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray to keep interim schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson in that job for good. (And that was the outcome.)

Also that month, he criticized the Wake County, N.C., School Board in a letter to the Washignton Post for ending its busing-for-diversity policy.

Last summer, Duncan urged the Detroit City Council to put a question on the November ballot that would turn control of the city’s schools over to the mayor. (The council decided against it.)

And the list goes on. (Think Central Falls, data firewalls, and New York’s last-in-first-out teacher layoff policy.)

“We are supporting reform at the state and local level,” department spokesman Justin Hamilton told me yesterday.

Now that Duncan has finished giving out nearly $100 billion in education stimulus aid, his ability to push his education-reform agenda is much more limited. The bully pulpit may be his most powerful lever, so I would expect Duncan to continue to be take sides in state and local education debates.

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