Arne Duncan, one of President Barack Obama’s longest-serving and most contentious Cabinet members, will be leaving his post in December, the White House announced Friday. In his wake, he leaves an incomplete legacy of aggressive reform pushes that, while not always successful, shaped the education debate and elicited passions on both the left and the right.
Duncan, who previously served as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, has been on Obama’s Cabinet since the very beginning of his presidency, and is one of Obama’s closest friends in government. With his departure, only Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will remain from the president’s original team.
An Obama official told The Associated Press that rather than force a confirmation battle so late in his presidency, Obama plans to leave Duncan’s post vacant, while allowing John King Jr., a senior bureaucrat at the Department of Education, to sit in as acting secretary for the next year.
As Secretary, Duncan’s aggressive agenda made him enemies and friends on both sides of the aisle. (RELATED: Arne Duncan Seeks Economic Advice From Chicago Gang Leaders)
On the right, Duncan is likely most strongly associated with his efforts promoting Common Core, which was created at the state level but thanks to him is now strongly linked to the Obama administration. Early in his tenure, he helped Obama launch the Race to the Top program, which used federal stimulus funds to encourage states to adopt a variety of education reforms, including Common Core. More recently, Duncan has attempted to keep states in the standards by making them a factor in state applications for waivers from No Child Left Behind. These Washington-centric approaches to reform upset many conservatives, who saw in them an attempt to take away state and local rights on education.
But Duncan’s reform efforts sometimes upset the Democratic base as well, while advancing goals many Republicans found laudable. He promoted charter schools, was a strong supporter of using performance-based pay and standardized test scores to hold teachers accountable, and he even showed limited support for the court decision Vergara v. California, in which a California state judge threw out the state’s extremely generous tenure laws. Both of the country’s largest teachers unions called for him to resign, with the National Education Association describing his record as “shameful.” (RELATED: National Teachers Union Demands Arne Duncan’s Head)
Accordingly, Sen. Lamar Alexander, who has led Republican education reform efforts in Congress, released a statement full of praise for Duncan despite their partisan divide.
“Arne Duncan was one of the president’s best appointments. He has a big heart, cares about children, and I have enjoyed working with him,” Alexander said. “When we disagree, it is usually because he believes the path to effective teaching, higher standards, and real accountability is through Washington, DC, and I believe it should be in the hands of states, communities, parents and classroom teachers.”
Despite all the controversy around him, Duncan’s resignation is still a surprise, as he had said he planned to remain at his post for the duration of Obama’s presidency, and there isn’t any scandal pushing him out. According to Duncan, he simply wishes to spend more time with his family.
But by stepping away early, Duncan may imperil an effort to pass the biggest education reform bill in years. Lawmakers from the House and Senate are currently in conference trying to hammer out a compromise bill to replace No Child Left Behind, which is universally considered out-of-date. To pass the bill, lawmakers will need a final bill conservative enough to win over House Republicans without attracting a veto from President Obama. The bill’s odds were considered reasonably strong going into the fall session, but with House Speaker John Boehner resigning and now Duncan leaving as well, several of its key drivers will be stepping away, likely diminishing its chances of final passage.
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