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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

The Problem With Sec. Duncan Playing HR Guru

By Rick Hess — January 13, 2014 3 min read
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I like our earnest Secretary of Education. I think he means well. That said, I’ve had serious reservations about the way he has approached his office, including his approach to Race to the Top, NCLB waivers, and the Common Core. Secretary Duncan has unapologetically and aggressively extended the federal role in education. Along the way, he has been dismissive of statutory constraints, allowed the whims of Department staff to become policy, run roughshod over the architecture of federalism, and bullied state officials. Duncan has seemed to regard concerns about separation of powers, federalism, or what statutes actually say as niceties that can’t be allowed to slow his important work.

Against that backdrop, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss recently reported that, “Duncan and at least one other Education Department official urged New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and his team not to choose Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr as the city’s next schools chancellor.” Starr, of course, may be best known for having been publicly critical of elements of the Obama administration education agenda, including Race to the Top and teacher evaluation. When asked about Duncan’s discussion with de Blasio, the Post reported that ED spokesman Massie Ritsch did not dispute this account.

My friend Andy Rotherham wrote about the story over at Eduwonk, dismissing the whole thing as a big nothingburger. I had a very different reaction, whether the call was initiated by de Blasio or Duncan.

I can kinda, sorta live with the Secretary of Education putting in a good word for certain people. I’m not crazy about it, but it’s human nature and a decent impulse to support colleagues, friends, and protégés. And, if Duncan is asked for his take on a handful of candidates, putting in a good word about X and not Y obviously gets into a gray area of dissing Y. While the line may be vague, however, the distinction is still important.

Put simply, I have a big problem with Duncan, while wearing the mantle of the Secretary’s office, going out of his way to stop Starr from getting hired. I find that enormously troubling. And it’s not about the fact that I think Starr is a smart, impassioned educator (with whom I sometimes agree and sometimes disagree). It’s that Duncan’s two cents is not just a casual opinion. His voice is that of a federal official who steers billions of dollars and has essentially rewritten federal law with an enormous degree of discretion. Duncan has claimed great freedom to award funds and grant states leeway from federal law, all while attaching new requirements that carry the force of law. This gives him extraordinary ability to punish, threaten, and cajole.

It’s not a question of whether Duncan intended to intimidate anyone. He might intend to come off as Mr. Rogers, but things may look very different to state and local leaders. They may fear that defying Duncan’s preferences will put them at heightened risk of losing federal funds, being denied an NCLB waiver (or a waiver of a waiver), being subjected to an OCR investigation, or publicly attacked by a cabinet secretary. As ED extends its influence, it’s essential for federal education officials to behave in more circumspect and judicious ways. Duncan has done anything but.

I fear that the message to superintendents with professional aspirations is that they ought to think twice before publicly disagreeing with the Secretary of Education. I suspect at least a few state boards of education, mayors, or school boards may feel newly obliged to look over their shoulder to ensure that their hires won’t offend the administration. Such a state of affairs does real violence to notions of a limited federal role.

I’ve enough faith in Duncan that I trust he didn’t intend to intimidate those who might disagree with him. But the privileges of high office carry responsibilities, and those include taking care not to misuse the long arm of the state. I do hope Duncan will acknowledge the problem here and pledge to steer a different course going forward.

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