Analyzing Arne’s Era and What’s to Come

Arne Duncan announced Friday that he is resigning as Secretary of Education, effective sometime in December. He will be replaced – sort of – by Deputy Education Secretary John King, who will not be put up for the permanent job but will be kept until the end of the administration in an “acting” – and Senate confirmation-less – capacity.

Of course, what Duncan has done as Secretary reflects what the Obama administration wanted, not what Duncan did on his own. Regardless who was ultimately calling the shots, though, Duncan presided over a period that has fulfilled some of the worst fears of anyone who has ever said, “It might be a bad idea to have a federal education department. They might start trying to run things.”

The overarching theme under Duncan has been huge consolidation of power not just at the federal level – alone blatantly unconstitutional – but in the Department itself.

What’s the distinction? Basically, the Obama administration started making policy unilaterally. First it was with the massive “stimulus” at the beginning of the term, which included the infamous $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) program. Then, even more dubiously – at least Congress passed the stimulus – it offered waivers out of the No Child Left Behind Act’s most hated provisions, but only if states agreed to conditions set by the administration. (Go ahead and check NCLB. The secretary does not have authority to unilaterally set waiver conditions.) RTTT and waivers together helped drive adoption of the Common Core national curriculum standards; funded and pushed adoption of PARCC and SBAC tests aligned to the Core; prescribed a lot about how teachers would be evaluated; and more.

How did Duncan and the administration justify all this, especially the waivers? By declaring they couldn’t wait for Congress to pass legislation. They had to act now!

It hasn’t only been in K-12 education, of course, that Duncan has presided over huge increases in federal power. In higher education, Duncan has led the department as inflation-fueling student aid has been greatly expanded; for-profit colleges have been unfairly demonized in both word and deed; and the department’s Office of Civil Rights has conducted a crusade against campus sexual assaults that, while likely well-intentioned, has disregarded basic rights of the accused and been based on dubious information. Duncan has also pushed for greatly expanding government preschool programs despite the dearth of evidence that they work, including depressing findings from some of the federal government’s own, sometimes very quietly released, studies.

While again, Duncan likely didn’t call most of these shots himself, when he has spoken he has indicated enthusiasm for them. This is perhaps no better captured than when he insulted “white suburban moms” in order to suggest Common Core opponents were largely blinkered suburbanites or goofy fringe types. And then there was his cajoling states to either do what he said, or keep letting their kids suffer.

What has all this done for schooling outcomes? While it is very hard to attribute ups or downs to just one – or even several – policies, there’s little evidence all this top-down control has translated, ultimately, into better outcomes. Yes, high school graduation rates are up, but that may well be a function, at least partially, of bureaucratic workarounds more than increased student desire to stay and thrive in school. Supporting this, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have been pretty darn stagnant, sitting at the same level for 17-year-olds – the schools’ “final products” – that we’ve seen for decades, and SAT scores have declined. Meanwhile, higher education is all too empty a shell, with skyrocketing prices, terrible completion rates, huge underemployment for graduates, and major credential inflation.

The promotion of John King to acting Secretary suggests that the administration, at least rhetorically, will be maintaining its “we know best” approach. King was the most high-profile and vocal supporter of Common Core in New York as that state rushed, and fumbled, implementation, and he helped kick off the Core defense of belittling opponents – often parents just learning about the Core – rather than dealing with the numerous substantive objections they and others offered. This may be why the administration does not plan to nominate King for the full Secretary position: it wants to avoid a confirmation fight that would bring the ongoing Core war to DC, while keeping a true-believer in Duncan’s old chair.

And, of course, that is fitting: The hallmark of this administration has been doing and saying what it wants while avoiding Congress and public debate. It looks like that will continue.