Education Funding

Ed. Sec. Duncan’s Policy Leverage May Be Put to Test

By Michele McNeil — October 04, 2013 9 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responds to questions during an interview at the U.S. Department of Education. The education secretary has relied on federal funding incentives and the offer of regulatory flexibility to get states and school districts to go along with key aspects of President Barack Obama's education agenda.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan faces an increasingly rocky education policy landscape and wavering support for his aggressive K-12 agenda—at a time when his stack of bargaining chips is dwindling.

Compared to his assets in President Barack Obama’s first term, Mr. Duncan has few sweeteners left to use as leverage. That’s likely to leave him even more dependent on sanctions and persuasion in the administration’s final three years.

On the incentive side, he’s spent nearly $100 billion in economic-stimulus money approved by Congress in 2009 and used his own authority to hand out No Child Left Behind Act waivers to nearly every state.

But Congress seems more dysfunctional than ever, and less and less likely to give the Obama administration what it wants. After the 2014 midterm elections, when the administration will enter its twilight, Mr. Duncan’s clout will diminish even more.

Yet this is a crucial time for education policy. Most states are on the verge of fully implementing the Common Core State Standards and are bracing for the tests aligned with them. New teacher evaluations tied to student academic growth are being rolled out across the country. And the No Child Left Behind waivers granted to states so far let them set up school rating systems approved by the U.S. Department of Education with student-achievement goals and interventions for struggling schools that differ fundamentally from provisions of the NCLB law.

With most of his carrots gone, and no new money coming in, Mr. Duncan primarily has two tools left to protect his K-12 agenda and keep states in line: the bully pulpit and enforcement sticks.

“We never really believed the sticks were a great lever,” said Peter Cunningham, who served as a top adviser to Mr. Duncan in the administration’s first term and still consults with the federal department.

“The big role as he gets into his second term is highlighting reform,” Mr. Cunningham said. “I think the best he can do is build support for the things that are going on out there.”

Already, as Mr. Duncan’s second-term strategy unfolds, some states and their schools chiefs are balking. At least four states are fighting with the Education Department over their waivers, Georgia plans to appeal a federal decision to withhold a small portion of its Race to the Top award, and California continues to test the bounds of what it can and can’t do on school accountability under federal law.

In contrast to the early years of the Obama administration, Mr. Duncan is now “wildly unpopular,” said Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University.

“He’s got three years to secure his legacy and defend his record,” she said. “I’m not sure he’s going to have the ammo to do that.”

Powerful Incentives

From Day One, the secretary has said that incentives are the most powerful and effective tools at his disposal in pursuing the administration’s education agenda.

He used a $4 billion Race to the Top competition to cajole states into eliminating firewalls between student and teacher data, lifting caps on charter schools, and adopting the common standards. He fast-tracked work on common tests by funding two consortia of states to work on them. And he got nearly every state to plan to implement teacher evaluations tied to student test scores—to be used eventually to inform personnel decisions—as part of his NCLB waiver initiative.

But now, some states are choking on those carrots.

Three NCLB waiver states—Kansas, Oregon, and Washington—are on “high risk” status for failing to comply with federal conditions placed on their waivers. Arizona is refusing to budge on federal demands over its waiver involving graduation rates and teacher evaluations.

California tried to devise its own approach to testing students in light of the transition to the common core, and Mr. Duncan told the state in very clear terms that its way—not testing every student in math and reading—was unacceptable. But this week, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed a bill that suspends accountability testing for a year as the state transitions to the new common tests, setting up a confrontation with federal officials.

Among Race to the Top states, Hawaii’s $75 million grant was placed on high-risk status over problems with carrying out its teacher-evaluation system; more than a year later, it was put back in good standing. State Superintendent of Schools Kathryn Matayoshi said in an interview that the federal warning came with its headaches—such as additional reporting—but provided some motivation to keep working on sticky teacher-union negotiations.

Georgia is in worse trouble over Race to the Top. Federal officials are taking steps to revoke nearly $10 million from the state’s $400 million grant after the state decided it could not implement its performance-based pay plan during the 2013-14 school year as it had promised. Georgia is planning to appeal.

“We want to do this, and you gave us the money,” Georgia Superintendent of Schools John Barge said of his stance toward federal officials. “We are committed, but this timeline was not even feasible.”

In general, Mr. Barge said, “the heavier the stick, the more the states are going to pull back. We do not want to be forced into directions that we may or may not agree with.”

But many policy experts doubt Mr. Duncan will go much further in enforcement, which could give states more leverage to do what they want.

“There are no indications that they intend to be very strict,” Charles Barone, the policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee, said of the Duncan team. “They’ve fought the big fights and have taken their hits.”

What’s more, virtually no one thinks federal enforcement is a good way to get states or districts to do what policy officials want. Mr. Duncan himself has said he doesn’t like using sticks and would prefer to work with states as a partner.

Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, said that it’s far easier for Mr. Duncan to accomplish his goals by working with states. For that reason, she predicts that he will never revoke a state’s NCLB waiver.

Bulging Portfolio

Still, the coming three years will find the Education Department managing a complex portfolio of programs, and holding states and districts accountable for promises they made to get waivers and competitive grants. A range of advocacy groups are hammering the department to use its leverage to improve everything from the importance of graduation rates in school accountability systems to the models used to turn around failing schools.

Mr. Duncan, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has acknowledged the implementation challenges his department faces. But spokesman Cameron French said through its programs, the department can still partner with states, working to raise standards and expand early learning opportunities.

“I promise you—none of us will get everything 100 percent right the first time,” Mr. Duncan said in a Sept. 30 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, in which he was critical of Congress for failing to overhaul immigration policy, expand preschool, and reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current version of which is the NCLB law.

“But we are all learning what’s working—and, where necessary, adjusting,” he said. “We are seeing extraordinary courage and leadership by states, as we challenge them to maintain a high bar, while offering them as much flexibility as possible to be creative and innovative.”

Federal Meddling?

Many schools chiefs hope to hear little from Washington during the administration’s final years.

“What will define their success is their ability to let the states go and implement what they’ve said they would, and resist the traditional federal impulse to constantly layer on more regulation and more process,” Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White said in an interview.

Mr. White pointed to one example of what he sees as federal meddling: When his state board of education changed its teacher-observations protocols involving how often and for how long a principal does a classroom observation, federal officials called his office to say that he needed to get the changes approved because of the state’s NCLB waiver.

That kind of involvement, Mr. White said, “erodes the trust and, more importantly, it consumes precious time. We also have a time clock.”

In essence, the department has laid the groundwork and should now get out of the way, said Richard Laine of the National Governors Association. That applies to everything from promotion of the common core to NCLB waivers, he said.

“He should allow the states to lead now,” Mr. Laine, the education division director of the NGA’s Center for Best Practices, said of Mr. Duncan. “The track record of compliance to achieve quality doesn’t play well.”

Since the start of President Obama’s second term in January, Mr. Duncan has spent much of his media capital, and time, lobbying for the president’s plan to expand preschool. But the ambitious, $75 billion plan has virtually no shot of being approved in the current congressional climate.

To be sure, even as Congress is likely to refuse any requests for additional education spending, Mr. Duncan can do many things to leave his mark.

The department is working on long-delayed new rules that seek to tighten the accountability of schools of education for teacher preparation.

The secretary is also a vocal supporter of the Federal Communications Commission’s move to modernize the federal E-rate program, which uses revenue from taxes on telephone land lines to help connect schools and libraries to the Internet.

And the 42 states and the District of Columbia that have won NCLB waivers are already starting the waiver-renewal process, to which Mr. Duncan has attached more strings.

That’s one way to bring states “back to court,” said Sandy Kress, a lawyer in Austin, Texas, who as an education aide to President George W. Bush helped craft the bipartisan NCLB law in 2001.

“And that’s a way to keep power,” Mr. Kress said. “But over time, states and districts tend to wait the federal government out. They’re in it for the long term, and he’s not.”

Using His Megaphone

Mr. Duncan—who has said he wants to serve for the duration of Mr. Obama’s presidency—will presumably have his bully pulpit until it’s time to turn out the lights on the administration. He’s used his high-profile office to support Kaya Henderson for District of Columbia schools chancellor, to criticize education in Texas, and to lobby Washington state legislators to support a plan to consolidate education functions into a single department under the governor’s control.

In July, Mr. Duncan issued a public statement from his office in response to a district fiscal meltdown in Philadelphia. He urged district, city, and state leaders to fix the financial mess.

But it remains to be seen how much of a difference the secretary’s speeches and statements will make between now and January 2017, especially given the few carrots he has left to dole out.

Mr. Kress said: “He’s got some decisions to make about how he uses his waning power. He’s going to have less power. People will pay less attention. It happens to every administration.”

To explore how the secretary has used incentives and enforcement to drive change during his first five years in office, see this related timeline: Federal Carrots and Sticks

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