Arne Dun­can, US ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary, steps down af­ter seven years in of­fice


U.S. Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Arne Dun­can an­nounced Fri­day he will step down fol­low­ing a seven-year ten­ure marked by a will­ing­ness to plunge head-on into the heated de­bate about the gov­ern­ment’s role in ed­u­ca­tion.

Sidestep­ping a con­fir­ma­tion fight in Congress, Obama tapped John King Jr., a se­nior Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment bu­reau­crat, to run the depart­ment while leav­ing the role of sec­re­tary va­cant for the re­main­der of his pres­i­dency.

One of Obama’s long­est-serv­ing Cab­i­net mem­bers, Dun­can is among the few to form a close per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with the pres­i­dent. Af­ter his de­par­ture in De­cem­ber, Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Tom Vil­sack will be the sole mem­ber of Obama’s Cab­i­net still in his orig­i­nal role.

“Arne’s done more to bring our ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem, some­times kick­ing and scream­ing, into the 21st cen­tury than any­body else,” Obama said, prais­ing Dun­can at the White House as one of the most con­se­quen­tial sec­re­taries in the depart­ment’s history.

Dun­can, who plans to re­turn to Chicago to join his fam­ily, choked up as he re­flected on his run in Washington and his roots as the child of Chicago teach­ers.

“All our life we saw what kids could do when they were given a chance. That’s why we do this work to­day,” Dun­can said.

In an un­con­ven­tional move, Obama asked King to over­see the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment, but de­clined to nom­i­nate him to be sec­re­tary, which would re­quire con­fir­ma­tion by the op­po­si­tion­run Se­nate. El­e­vat­ing King in an act­ing ca­pac­ity spares Obama a po­ten­tial clash over his ed­u­ca­tion poli­cies as his term draws to a close.

“We do not in­tend to nom­i­nate another can­di­date,” said a White House of­fi­cial who wasn’t au­tho­rized to com­ment by name and spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity. Op­po­nents were quick to point out that Obama has pre­vi­ously com­plained that act­ing sec­re­taries can­not ful­fill all the du­ties of Se­nate-con­firmed agency heads.

Fight­ing Left and Right

Dun­can’s ten­ure co­in­cided with a roil­ing de­bate about per­ceived fed­eral over­reach into schools that re­mains a po­tent is­sue as he leaves of­fice. Nav­i­gat­ing a del­i­cate di­vide, Dun­can sought to use the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s lever­age to en­tice states to fol­low Washington’s pre­ferred ap­proach to higher stan­dards, prompt­ing re­sis­tance from all sides.

Op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers and state lead­ers ac­cused Dun­can of a heavy-handed ap­proach that sidestepped law­mak­ers and en­forced top-down poli­cies on lo­cal schools. Crit­ics blasted the depart­ment for link­ing fund­ing to state adop­tion of stan­dards such as the Com­mon Core, a con­tro­ver­sial set of cur­ricu­lum guide­lines. His sig­na­ture ini­tia­tive was Race to the Top, in which states com­peted for fed­eral grants, with strings at­tached.

On the left, Dun­can clashed over pol­icy with teach­ers’ unions — in­clud­ing the largest, the 275,000-mem­ber Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, which once called on Dun­can to re­sign. La­bor lead­ers bris­tled at his strong sup­port for char­ter schools and the use of stu­dent test scores to eval­u­ate teach­ers.

Through­out his ten­ure, Dun­can stood firmly be­hind fed­eral stan­dard­ized test­ing re­quire­ments, even as he read­ily handed out waivers ex­empt­ing states from Ge­orge W. Bush-era re­quire­ments un­der No Child Left Be­hind. Dun­can cast the fed­eral test­ing as a civil rights is­sue, crit­i­cal to mak­ing school en­sure that stu­dents of all races and back­grounds suc­ceed. The Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment pointed to sta­tis­tics show­ing the high school grad­u­a­tion rate un­der Dun­can hit a new high of 81 per­cent.

Oc­ca­sion­ally flash­ing im­pa­tience with crit­i­cism, Dun­can raised eye­brows in 2014 when he cast op­po­nents as “white sub­ur­ban moms who — all of a sud­den — their child isn’t as bril­liant as they thought they were.” He later said he re­gret­ted the “clumsy phras­ing.”

Part of the Chicago co­hort that con­verged on Washington af­ter Obama’s elec­tion, Dun­can pre­vi­ously ran the Chicago public school sys­tem, although he never worked as a teacher. A bas­ket­ball player who played pro­fes­sion­ally in Aus­tralia, Dun­can was once a reg­u­lar in Obama’s week­end games.

“Arne Dun­can was one of the pres­i­dent’s best ap­point­ments,” said Sen­a­tor La­mar Alexan­der, who fre­quently clashed with Dun­can as chair­man of the Se­nate’s ed­u­ca­tion panel. He added that they dis­agreed on the is­sue of fed­eral ver­sus lo­cal con­trol of schools.

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