After almost seven years at the helm of the Department of Education, Arne DuncanArne Starkey DuncanAmerica's religion of anti-racism reaches peak absurdity What the next Education secretary must do How Democrats learned to stop worrying and love teachers MORE announced that he would step down as Secretary of Education in December. Secretary Duncan’s legacy is a complicated one; while he was a backer of charter schools, his approach to promoting their proliferation erred.

Under his watch, Duncan greatly expanded the reach of the Department of Education over state education policy, and he used a massive amount of federal taxpayer money to tempt school districts into adopting the Obama administration’s other education priorities as well.


Charter school expansion is certainly a noble goal, but Duncan’s approach was unsustainable and also contributed to several pieces of questionable education policies being forced onto states. Policies promoting the expansion of charter schools should come from the state level, as they have in the past and will in the future-- long after the billions in federal grant money given out during Duncan’s tenure have dried up.

Many on the right, from Ronald Reagan to Ron Paul, have called for the Department of Education to be eliminated, but under Arne Duncan the federal government’s role in education increased unlike ever before. Some, like Michael J. Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, have called Duncan’s reign the “apex of federal authority in education.”

The primary reason for this shift in education policy from the state to the federal level is President Obama’s signature piece of education legislation: Race to the Top. The $4.35 billion Race to the Top program massively increased federal control over state education policy, and forced states to adopt common core curriculum in exchange for federal stimulus dollars.

Had Duncan and Obama gotten their way, more federal entitlement programs related to education would’ve been created--increasing the federal government's control in the states. Duncan and Obama advocated for an Obamacare-like approach to pre school and community college-- increasing access without addressing costs first-- which would’ve been disastrous.

The idea that the federal government knows best, was the fatal flaw of Secretary Duncan’s time in the Department of Education-- and the fatal flaw of the Obama administration as a whole.

 Despite Duncan’s heavy-handed approach, there are little results to show for it. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been fairly stagnant during his tenure, and SAT scores have actually declined.

State governments and local school districts need to be the drivers of education reform. Local leaders know what sort of education policies would work best in their region, not unelected federal bureaucrats.

Massachusetts is among several states currently embroiled in fights to increase the number of charter schools available to students. Charter school backers, including Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, are attempting to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. There are currently 37,000 students on charter school waitlists in Massachusetts that are being denied a chance at a better education because of these completely arbitrary charter school caps.

Given the performance of charter schools in Massachusetts, it’s no surprise the waitlist is that long. In 2015, a study by Stanford University found that in math and reading, Boston charter schools outperformed traditional public schools and other charter schools in urban areas by a wide margin over a six-year span. The results were the same for both black and Hispanic students, and low-income students. The high performance of charter schools in Massachusetts isn’t just limited to Boston. Statewide, 18 charter schools finished first in all of Massachusetts on various categories of the 2014 state-mandated Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests.

The last time Massachusetts raised their charter school cap, they did it in accordance with Duncan’s dictates--and the state received a nice carrot in the form of $250 million in federal grant money to do so.

This time around Massachusetts is trying to raise the cap independent of any federal incentives. Charter school advocates are planning legislation, a ballot initiative, and have a lawsuit pending-- all trying to raise the Massachusetts cap.

Their goal is absolutely tenable. In 2011, North Carolina successfully lifted their cap of 100 charter schools in the state. At the time, over 30,000 students were on the charter school waitlist. In 2010, the state of New York was also able to increase their charter school cap from 200 to 460.

Despite hindrances, charter schools have been experiencing steady growth over the last 10 years. Without a doubt, the federal incentives to increase the number of charter schools during Duncan’s tenure have contributed to that, but word is getting out that students are performing better at these schools, and parents are starting to demand more of them too. Now that Race to the Top money has dried up, states need to continue the push for charter school expansion.

Nava is a staff writer for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.