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Education Secretary Arne Duncan To Step Down

Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, will step down in December — after nearly seven years in the job.
Astrid Riecken Landov
Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, will step down in December — after nearly seven years in the job.

After nearly seven years in office, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will step down in December. The former head of Chicago Public Schools came to Washington back in 2009 with his friend — a newly-elected President Obama.

Duncan's tenure was remarkable for two reasons:

First, he got a lot done. A lot. The list is long, so, for the purposes of this short post, let's focus on perhaps the biggest thing he did, which was also one of the first things he did. In the summer of 2009, Duncan made this grand pronouncement:


"For states, for district leaders, for unions, for businesses and for nonprofits, the Race to the Top is the equivalent of education reform's moonshot."

RTTT was a giant pot of stimulus money — more than four billion dollars' worth — offered to beleaguered states soon after the Great Recession. Duncan used it to entice them to make sometimes-controversial changes in the classroom. At the top of that list: adopting new, common standards and evaluating teachers.

Rick Hess is director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and he says it was clear from the start that Duncan wanted to use his bully pulpit to push some big ideas.

"Duncan's biggest legacy is that he dramatically increased the role of the U.S. Department of Education in the nation's schools," Hess says.

When states clamored for relief from the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind law, Duncan was there, offering waivers — again, in return for implementing his big ideas.


Arne Duncan was also a champion of charter schools and a believer in the power of testing to reveal inequality in America's classrooms. At the higher ed level, he oversaw an expansion of Pell Grants, cut banks out of the federal student loan business, and cracked down on for-profit colleges.

The other remarkable thing about Duncan's tenure isn't one of those ideas but how he fought for them all. Hess says Duncan wasn't afraid to butt heads, even if it meant making enemies out of Republicans and traditional allies alike.

"He tackled issues that are difficult for a Democrat — especially a Chicago Democrat to tackle," Hess says.

Duncan's support for testing and teacher evaluation systems infuriated the nation's teachers' unions, which repeatedly called for him to step down.

Why is he leaving now? In a word: family. Duncan told staffers in an e-mail that he wants to return to Chicago to be with his wife and two kids.

This afternoon, the President tapped Duncan's deputy, John King Junior, to succeed him as Secretary. King is former education commissioner for New York state. There, on a smaller stage, he fought many of the same, bruising battles that Duncan did.

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