Outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had ambitious, controversial reach

President Obama, right, named John King Jr., center, to replace Arne Duncan, left, when Duncan steps down as secretary of Education in December.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Friday that he would leave the Obama Cabinet in December after nearly seven years of attempting to reshape and bring more accountability to public schools and universities.

Duncan’s emphasis proved controversial on standardized testing, teacher evaluation and the value of a college degree.

Duncan had a sometimes stormy relationship with California, despite its status as a stronghold of support for Democrats and the Obama administration. Early conflicts centered on Duncan’s signature Race to the Top competitive grant program. States had to agree to a teacher evaluation system that partly used student test scores, angering unions and others.


An original member of the Obama administration and former head of Chicago Public Schools, he won praise from supporters for pushing higher standards, supporting charter schools, significantly expanding federal financial aid and cracking down on corrupt for-profit colleges.

President Obama said he would appoint Duncan’s deputy secretary John B. King Jr., the former schools chief of New York State, to succeed Duncan.

At a White House news conference, Obama praised Duncan, saying: “Arne’s done more to bring our educational system — sometimes kicking and screaming — into the 21st century more than anyone else. America is going to be better off for what he has done. It’s going to be more competitive and more prosperous. It is going to be more equal and more upwardly mobile.”

Duncan, 50, said he wanted to spend more time with his family and did not discuss his next career move. His departure leaves Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as the last original Cabinet member in office.

Duncan was one of Obama’s major players who used executive power in response to congressional gridlock. In light of Congress’ failure to revise the No Child Left Behind Act, he offered states waivers from the school accountability law’s most stringent restrictions in exchange for signing on to some Obama-preferred education policies.

Congress “essentially ceded power to the executive branch,” said Thomas Dee, professor of education and director of the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis. “This created a lot of innovation in the field that we could study and learn from, but it also was the beginning of the sense that top-down reforms are sometimes not what people want. I really admire his commitment, but the jury is still out on his legacy.”


Some of his policies faced immense pushback from Republicans who think the Obama administration has exerted too much control over the nation’s public schools and from teachers unions that resented his emphasis on holding instructors accountable for test results.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that she appreciated Duncan’s efforts to alleviate student debt, regulate for-profit colleges, boost early education and help low-income children. But, she added, “there’s no question that the Department of Education’s fixation on charters and high-stakes testing has not worked.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the head of the Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee and a former U.S. secretary of Education, described Duncan as “one of the president’s best appointments.”

Duncan’s relationship with California has not been easy, despite the strong Democratic base. An early conflict led to the state’s failure to secure grants through Duncan’s Race to the Top effort, a competition for extra funds if schools embraced reform measures, including the teacher evaluation system.

Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, supported the requirements, but could not secure agreement from teacher unions. As a result, other states got the money.

In higher education, Duncan pushed to reduce the role of commercial banks in student lending, crack down on for-profit schools that had low graduation and employment rates and make the overall performance records of colleges and universities more transparent. His department also attracted much attention by launching investigations into how campuses handled students’ allegations of sexual assaults and harassment.

Terry W. Hartle of the American Council on Education said Duncan significantly expanded the role of the federal government in higher education. While colleges and universities agreed with some of Duncan’s policies, many felt that some of his department’s regulations were “clumsy” and tried to impose “one-sized” solutions on a wide variety of schools, Hartle said.

In 2013, Duncan provoked controversy when he described critics of Common Core testing as “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.” Later, Duncan said he had used “clumsy phrasing.”

On Friday at the White House, Duncan introduced King, who is black and Puerto Rican, as “one of those kids that probably shouldn’t be in a room like this,” according to stereotypes, referring to the low representation of minorities in leadership positions. King credited New York City public school teachers for keeping him alive, but gave few specifics for his plans as secretary of Education.

Justin Hamilton, Duncan’s former press secretary, was not surprised by Duncan’s resignation given Duncan’s emphasis on seeing his family as much as possible.

Hamilton also speculated that the changing politics in Congress with the recently announced resignation of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could make it more difficult to win passage of a rewrite of No Child Left Behind.

One of Duncan’s most visible failures was an effort to develop a ratings system under which colleges were to be assigned some kind of evaluation or grade based on such matters as graduation rates, student loan defaults and income of graduates. The idea proved to be hugely difficult and many colleges said they feared being judged unfairly.

Recently, Duncan dropped the idea and expanded a federal website that offers consumers much data on those issues.

King grew up in Brooklyn, where he was shuffled among family members after his parents died. He earned degrees from Harvard, Yale and Columbia, founded a charter school in Massachusetts and became the managing director of a charter school chain.

In 2011, King was appointed as New York State’s education commissioner and he oversaw the implementation of Common Core. He also started new, tougher teachers evaluations that led to conflicts with the teachers union.

He resigned in 2014 to work as Duncan’s deputy.

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