At a crucial moment with the best possibility of an ESEA re-authorization on the near horizon and with only about one year left before the end of the Obama administration, long-serving Education Secretary Arne Duncan has stepped down. It is unclear why, but we do know that the President wanted Duncan to finish the course: “I’ll be honest. I pushed Arne to stay,” he said at a televised news conference at the White House Oct. 2. “He’s one of the longest-serving education secretaries in history and one of the more consequential.”

Duncan has certainly been a polarizing figure in education politics and reform over the last 7 years for two main reasons. First, the Education Department was granted a unique opportunity to implement its policies under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This program involved $100 billion for education, which the Administration used to encourage teacher evaluation based on student achievement, college and career ready standards, and most notably Race to the Top, a grant program for school turnaround. Conservatives, although initially supportive, also grew disenchanted with Duncan’s support for Common Core.

Second, because of the inability of Congress to push through a new re-authorization of the ESEA, of which No Child Left Behind is the most recent iteration, the Education Department was left in a situation in which it became the de-facto legislator of education policy. Because the punishments associated with NCLB were starting to come to fruition 10 years after it was passed in 2001-2002 and no states had lived up to the strict standards imposed by the law, the Education Department under Duncan instituted a system of waivers that granted states clemency in return for promises of following education policies favored by the Obama Administration. This is the situation that began to rankle many of the left-leaning education professionals who had initially supported Duncan’s efforts.

Looking back at Duncan’s career as Education Secretary provides a perfect window into U.S. Education policy reform struggles in recent years. Because Duncan has pursued policies across the political spectrum, he has received praise and condemnation from those on both sides of the aisle. And it is in part for this reason, why it is still an open question whether a new education bill will be passed and how much that bill might sweep back some of the changes made by Duncan which granted the Education Department unprecedented powers in American education. It will now be the job of the new Education Secretary, John B. King Jr. (the acting deputy secretary of Education with a background in New York State education administration), to navigate the education waters for the remainder of the Obama Administration.

Ray Nunziata



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