Blog: The Educated Reporter

Arne Duncan’s Departure: Education Reporters Dig In

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visit a classroom at the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) in Brooklyn, N.Y., Oct. 25, 2013. (White House/Pete Souza)

A good test of reporters’ skills is how they handle breaking news – and last week’s surprise announcement that Arne Duncan would step down as U.S. Secretary of Education was a prime example. 

To be sure, the news was more surprising to some than others, given the political battles looming as the election cycle speeds up. But education journalists at the regional, state, and national level wasted no time framing Duncan’s legacy (The Hechinger Report is just one fine example), what his departure will mean for the long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and taking a look at Duncan’s replacement.

Emma Brown and Lindsey Layton of the Washington Post wrote that the reaction to Duncan’s resignation was mixed, and reflect a national divide over the current education reform landscape:

Former California congressman George Miller, a Democrat who worked closely with Duncan as chairman of the House education committee, called Duncan’s departure “a huge loss,” and said no one has been more committed to improving the education of the nation’s most disadvantaged children.

Gus Morales, a Massachussetts teacher and member of the Badass Teachers Association, a fierce critic of Duncan’s policies, called him “one of the most destructive people to hold the title of Secretary of Education.”

Education Week provided a straight-ahead story on Duncan’s announcement, followed by closer analysis of what this might portend for the ESEA (a.k.a. the No Child Left Behind Act). Alyson Klein, who also coauthors the newspaper’s Politics K-12 blog, indulges us with a “parlor game” of whether it’s good or bad, and gets some big names to chime in on both sides: 

Bad for ESEA: ”The reality is for it [ESEA] to go through, everything has to go right. For it not to go through, only one thing has to go wrong,” said Andy Rotherham, a partner at Bellwether Education who has been tracking the views of “Insiders” on ESEA and other issues for a monthly survey for years. (It’s a good read, check out the latest version.) “This confuses an already confused environment.”

Good for ESEA: ”This helps,” said a Senate GOP aide, who predicted the rewrite would be finished by the end of the year. “It makes the whole thing less toxic. … There’s always been this fear that no matter what we did, Arne would just ignore it and subvert the law, and now he’s not going to be there.”

Over at The Atlantic, Alia Wong concluded that Duncan’s exit will probably boost the chances of Congress reauthorizing the ESEA. She also noted that:

Duncan’s departure is met with mixed reactions. Many education leaders give him credit for his aggressive reform strategies. He’s also recognized for helping usher through stimulus money that supported struggling schools and paid for 325,000 teaching jobs as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Critics highlight the contentious nature of his focus on charter schools as well as an overwhelming emphasis on testing and the Common Core State Standards, which have been widely derided as negatively affecting the student learning experience.

“Arne’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anybody else,” Obama said on Friday.

Duncan’s interim replacement is John King, the former education commissioner for New York and current deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education. President Obama is not expected to name a new, permanent education chief before he leaves office next year, so King will be the “acting” secretary. Lauren Camera of U.S. News & World Report offered Five Things to Know About the New Education Secretary, including his longtime support for charter schools. (Camera also gave EWA Radio an insider’s view of what’s turned out to be Duncan’s last back-to-school bus tour.)Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk also takes a look at King’s record and background.

Several stories showcased King’s personal history. Over at The Los Angeles Times, Joy Resmovits shared what happened when King sat down with former gang members in August as part of a White House program to improve opportunities for young men of color. Politico’s Caitlin Emma and Kimberly Hefling concluded that King’s positions closely align with Duncan’s, and that could hurt his effectiveness. The Politico piece also summarizes King’s remarkable professional trajectory, which began in New York City as the son of two public school teachers. He was kicked out of the prestigious Phillips Academy prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, but later graduated from Harvard. At age 24, he co-founded  Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston, Politico reports: 

The school’s success with minority students from low-income families earned national attention. Its students at times earned higher test scores than their peers in some of Boston’s wealthiest suburbs. The federal Education Department chose the school as one of several case studies for a book on charter schools. King left after five years for Yale Law School, telling the Boston Globe that a law degree would give him access to policy conversations and opportunities that he didn’t have as school leader.

Chalkbeat New York also analyzed the selection of King as acting secretary, writing that it “signals potentially deepening attention to education equity issues for the Obama administration.”

Sarah Carr, writing for Slate, concluded that it will be the next appointed education secretary after King who will face the biggest headaches, thanks to a deeply divided Congress as well as sharp schisms within the Democratic and Republican parties over key issues like testing and accountability, school choice and the Common Core. In the meantime, King’s task is a daunting one, writes Carr:

“King will be left trying to maintain support—and quiet opposition—to education initiatives that were set in motion during somewhat less rancorous times. And he’ll have the benefit, and challenge, of doing that largely outside the eye of national reporters and pundits, whose attention, for the most part, is otherwise engaged. In some respects, the pushback is more decentralized, and less Washington-based than ever, making it harder to contain and address.”

Arne Duncan was asked to reflect on his own legacy during a Q&A at EWA’s 68th National Seminar, held last May in Chicago. You can find the highlights here.