Duncan Quits Post; Will Return to Chicago
By Caralee Adams
WASHINGTON—Arne Duncan is leaving the Department of Education after seven years, the Associated Press is reporting. Duncan, a friend of President Obama’s from Chicago, was one of just two of the president’s original cabinet members to still be in place. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack remains in his job from 2008.
Duncan’s announcement was made in a letter to his staff, where he said he was returning to Chicago to live with his family, the AP reported. Deputy Secretary John King Jr. will take Duncan’s post.
"I imagine my next steps will continue to involve the work of expanding opportunity for children, but I have no idea what that will look like yet," Duncan wrote, according to the AP.
The day before he announced he was stepping down, Duncan addressed the resignation of U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner during an interview at the Washington Ideas Forum, sponsored by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. Duncan said Boehner’s departure may hurt the chances of Congress approving a new Elementary Secondary Education Act. Duncan said it will be challenging to get enough support to replace the current No Child Left Behind federal law once the Republican leadership changes this fall.
“We hope Congress fixes the broken law. It is way overdue. I’m very concerned with Speaker Boehner stepping down that the odds of it being fixed went down, not up,” Duncan said.
When pressed by PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff about why he was worried, Duncan said a strong bipartisan bill is needed to pass ESEA and it would be “difficult for the next leader to work in a bipartisan way given the pressure from the extreme right.” Duncan added that he hopes and prays he’s wrong in his prediction.
Duncan said if states and localities freed half of the people convicted of nonviolent crimes—placing them instead in drug rehab or training programs—upward of $15 billion could be saved each year. He would like to see that money used to boost pay for teachers working in the highest-need schools by 50 percent.
“No one can defend the current status quo of mass incarceration,” which disproportionately affects men of color who often become repeat offenders, Duncan said. “The cost to society is staggering.”
A better use of those funds would be to give teachers the incentive to work in the 20 percent of schools serving the nation’s poorest children, according to Duncan. Research shows great teachers can help increase college-going rates, improve students’ lifetime earnings, and reduce teen pregnancy, he said.
“If we could get, attract, and retain teachers in our poorest communities, that would be life-transforming,” he said. “It could be the pinnacle of an educator’s career rather than something to escape or ward off.… Far too often in our nation, children that live in communities who need the best get the least. I want to reverse that.”
Another thing Duncan would like to see change is the discussion of education issues on the campaign trail. Candidates should be asked about their plans to increase access to quality early childhood education, raise high school graduation rates, reduce dropout rates, make sure high school graduates are college-ready, and expand the number of Americans with college degrees, he said.
Reporters need to find out the candidates’ goals in each of these areas, along with their strategies to put financial and political resources behind them, Duncan said. Rather than focusing on photo ops and kissing babies, he said he wants to know how the next president is committed to providing educational opportunities, particularly for the most disadvantaged Americans.
“Everything else is just noise,” Duncan said. “We give political leaders a pass if we don’t ask the simple questions. That’s the conversation I’d like to see.”
Duncan also used the platform to advocate for proposals to provide free community college tuition and the need for higher education to be more transparent about costs and student outcomes.
—Additional reporting from Wayne D’Orio
Photo courtesy of the Department of Education