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With Duncan on Way Out, How Much Political Juice Does Ed. Dept. Have Left?

By Alyson Klein — October 07, 2015 2 min read
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When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan first got into office, he had a refrigerator full of carrots, thanks the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus, which included $100 billion for education, including $5 billion for brand-new competitive grants.

He also had the usual set of sticks any secretary comes into office with—he could withhold a state’s federal money, send states or districts a “we’ve got our eye on you” letter, or open an investigation through the office for civil rights.

And later, when the administration’s waivers from many of the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act were in place, the secretary could put a waiver on high-risk status—or pull it altogether. (Just ask Washington state about that one.)

Now Duncan is on his way out the door and the Obama administration is about to head into the sunset. And now that Republicans—who haven’t exactly been bowled over by the administration’s competitive-grant strategy—are in control of Congress, the department has basically run out of carrots. (Except for ... maybe a secretarial visit? A mention in a speech?)

And there don’t seem to be many sticks left either.

“What’s in their tool box?” asked Terry Holliday, the former Kentucky commissioner of education. After all, he said, the handful of states without waivers don’t seem all that torn up about not having the flexibility.

The waning authority may not have much to do with Duncan’s departure—that’s just the way the end of the second term goes, Holliday said. “In the last year usually power begins diminishing.”

And Holliday doesn’t think John B. King Jr., the former New York State chief who will be serving as acting secretary, is a throw-thunderbolts-from-Washington kind of guy, anyway.

“I don’t think John King will have the desire to really create a lot of mandates on states,” he said. “I think having been a former chief [at the helm] helps, and I think he’ll try to work with states to honor their work over the last several years.”

But Sandy Kress, who worked in the White House during President George W. Bush’s tenure, doesn’t expect much regulatory action. Two states’ waivers are on high-risk status—Texas and South Dakota—but Kress doesn’t expect the department to actually pull one of them, or for it to matter very much if it did.

“Texas and other states are agreeing to the waivers, knowing when [the promises] come due that these guys are going to be gone,” said Kress, now a senior counsel at Akin Gump, a law firm. “I don’t see anyone on either side who will keep these waivers going any longer, and the states know that. That’s why I think it’s a waste of a year.”

But a department spokesman said the agency won’t change course.

“As Arne, John, and the president all made clear last week, there is no change to our agenda,” said Matt Lehrich in an email. “We will continue to fight every day to ensure that every student in America—regardless of ZIP code—has a fair shot at a great education from preschool through college or career training. Lots of hard, important work remains, and we will continue to use every avenue at our disposal to enhance educational opportunity for all children.”