Arne Duncan’s bipartisan legacy: Attracting vitriol from the right and the left

More than Margaret Spellings or Rod Paige, Arne Duncan was a bipartisan institution—he attracted vitriol from the right and the left. Was he a conservative sell-out? Foes on the left like Fenwick English, Kenneth Saltman, and the National Education Association thought so. Was he an imperious, waiver-happy Common Core evangelist? Christel Swasey and Glenn Beck pushed that line. For opponents, Duncan was the very personification of ill-intentioned educational reforms. But—for Common Core, ESEA, and educational assessment—Duncan’s retirement will clear the cruft of seven years and reinvigorate each of these, but on their own terms.

Of these policy areas, the Common Core State Standards probably suffered the most due to their identification with Duncan and—in Sen. Lamar Alexander’s words—the “national school board” that was his Department of Education. Education Week spoofed Duncan two years running for his over-the-top claims about the Common Core, The widely-read anti-Core blog by Christel Swasey hammered Duncan for “lies” about the Common CoreMichael Petrilli at the pro-standards Fordham Institute lamented that Duncan’s activity was detrimental to the Core’s success. “It’s not smart politics to feed this narrative that the Education Department is driving this train,”he said — a perception that Duncan reinforced, if unwittingly. In the summer of 2013, Duncan made something of a speaking tour blasting opponents as the “black helicopter” crowd and chastising standards backers for their flaccid support. With their federal cheerleader gone, Core supporters might be able to restore some credibility to their argument that the standards were state-led.

Duncan also became the face of waivers. Many conservatives saw Duncan’s use of ESEA waivers as another manifestation of Obama’s “lawless” government. Conservatives saw Duncan using waivers to badger states into accepting the Common Core (see the Oklahoma debacle) or the federally-funded testing consortia, PARCC and SBAC.  But the waivers also gave some Democrats pause—especially those from civil rights groups. Others on the left saw waivers as Duncan’s vehicle to expand  charter schools and teacher evaluation.  It is not for nothing that both the House and Senate versions of the ESEA’s long-overdue reauthorization explicitly limit future waivers. 

Finally, Duncan’s enthusiasm for test-driven accountability enraged some liberal opponents and prompted dazed blog posts from progressives about Duncan’s “corporate backers.” Although Duncan was not the first to champion test-based accountability, he pushed it in new, unsettling directions.  Teachers’ unions were especially angered over his eagerness to evaluate teachers. NYSUT president Karen Magee told supporters that the tests had opened a “war” that she intended to win. “Brothers and sisters, we didn’t start this war, but with your help, we will end it,” she said. The NEA beat her to it in 2011 when members were “appalled” with Secretary Duncan’s support of test-based accountability. In 2014, they called for his resignation for this reason. The tests became tied to him; anything that teachers, parents, or politicians did not like about the tests were tied to the Secretary. Duncan’s departure might offer an opening for test supporters to soften their appeal.

Arne Duncan has been one of President Obama’s most faithful secretaries, following him from Chicago to the White House. Obama has been likewise steadfast. Until the secretary lost the battle over college assessment this summer, Duncan had an amazing run of policy successes on charter schools, curriculum standards, data quality, and publicizing college costs. That success energized opponents, and the ensuing controversy poisoned the politics around his and President Obama’s education reform policies, many of which had bipartisan backing. With Duncan gone, those supporters might re-emerge from the shadows.