5 legacies from Duncan’s tenure as secretary of Education

Arne Duncan, Education, Common Core
Getty Images

Last Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced his resignation. He’ll be replaced on an acting basis by Deputy Secretary John King, former commissioner of education for New York state. Duncan’s seven-year tenure was significant on many fronts. As he departs, it’s worth noting five key legacies — for better and worse.

Expanding the footprint of the federal Department of Education. The U.S. Department of Education is now much more actively intertwined with the shape of K-12 schooling in the U.S. While it foots just 10 percent of the tab for K-12 schooling, Secretary Duncan used his “Race to the Top” program, waivers from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and an aggressive Office of Civil Rights to supersize the influence exerted by the George W. Bush-era Department of Education. On pre-K, the administration’s grant-funded efforts have sought to extend the reach of hundreds of federal regulations over early childhood education. On higher education, Duncan used rule-making to wage a war on for-profit colleges and to pursue an unprecedented degree of federal regulatory control.

{mosads}Shifting lawmaking from Capitol Hill to the Department of Education. Duncan succeeded in quietly shifting a vast amount of federal lawmaking from Congress to the Department of Education. Most notably, Duncan allowed states to ignore NCLB’s ludicrous mandate that federally specified interventions be imposed on any school where 100 percent of students were not proficient in reading and math — but only on the condition that they enact a slate of administration priorities. This was an offer that governors truly couldn’t refuse. While NCLB did permit him to grant states relief from portions of the law, there was no statutory basis for Duncan’s ambitious quid pro quo. Duncan’s conditions — including federally preferred teacher evaluation systems and adoption of the Common Core or a federally approved alternative — essentially moved the crafting of federal policy on K-12 from Congress to Duncan’s office.

Framing a Democratic agenda of big, new federal education initiatives. Duncan’s tenure was marked by a series of calls for grand new federal education initiatives. The administration has proposed more than $70 billion in pre-K funding. It’s adopted a generous loan forgiveness program, one that particularly benefits those who’ve pursued graduate degrees and those who eschew private-sector employment in favor of nonprofit positions or government jobs. It proposed a federal program that would make community college “free,” at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. All these proposals have moved the marker so that a Democrat’s educational boldness is now marked by a willingness to call for expansive new federal programs.

Enmeshing education in major party politics. Education has long been regarded as one of the more bipartisan areas of domestic policy. On Duncan’s watch, however, it has gotten more deeply enmeshed in major party politics. This is partly due to the tenor of the times, but also to Duncan’s rhetoric and the actions of his department. Through Race to the Top and his NCLB waives, Duncan unapologetically pushed the Common Core, raising conservative concerns about federal overreach and fueling concerns about slippery slopes. Duncan tossed gasoline on the flames by dismissing the concerns as the product of a lunatic “fringe” and of selfish suburban parents who don’t want to hear that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.” Duncan’s Office of Civil Rights pushed for racial quotas in school discipline and used inaccurate data to foment hysteria about campus rape, politicizing issues that had typically not been partisan.

Forging a bipartisan consensus that the secretary of Education needs to be reined in. The one clearly bipartisan legacy of Duncan’s tenure is the consensus on Capitol Hill that the Department of Education has gotten too big for its britches. That was the clear message of the 81-17 Senate vote for reauthorizing NCLB. One of the few points of agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress is that they’re nervous about the federal government giving states marching orders on the Common Core, teacher evaluation and much else. For the foreseeable future, the Department of Education is likely to be operating with clipped wings — and that may be Duncan’s signature legacy.

How important will each of these ultimately prove to be? It will be instructive to see how things unfold on King’s watch.

Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Tags Arne Duncan Common Core Department of Education NCLB No Child Left Behind Race to the Top

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video