Liberty Alerts, Eagle Forum, Education Reporter
With an unprecedented $100 billion in federal education funding to dole out, and a strong ally in President Obama, it would have been difficult for Arne Duncan not to make a significant impact during his first year as Secretary of Education. His Race to the Top (RTT) grant competition spurred a flurry of controversial state legislative changes including expanding charter schools, tying teacher pay to student performance, and moving towards common academic standards. Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, characterized the impact of RTT on state education policy as “breathtaking.”
But not everyone is impressed. “My report card is that he gets an A for being effective and a D-minus for the bad ideas,” said Diane Ravitch, assistant education secretary under the first President Bush. She faults Duncan for an overemphasis on standardized tests and for extending George W. Bush’s failed education policies.
Others have also raised questions about the efficacy of Duncan’s policies, which are similar to those he implemented as chief executive officer of Chicago schools from 2001-2008. Multiple reports of inflated student test scores during his tenure in Illinois have surfaced. Additionally, his strategy of closing the worst schools did not lead to any academic gains because most students were transferred to similarly dismal schools.
U.S. Representative John Kline of Minnesota, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, was initially cautiously optimistic about Mr. Duncan’s agenda. He is now concerned that RTT “has the potential to become another top-down, heavy-handed program.” Hundreds of school districts agree and refused to sign on to their state’s RTT bids (see story on page 2).
Kline has also been troubled by Duncan’s steadfast support of homosexual activist Kevin Jennings as the nations “Safe Schools” czar, despite multitudinous calls for his ouster. On another front, Rep. Kline demanded the Secretary provide documentation concerning his agency’s part in the Obama administration’s attempted takeover of the entire student loan industry. The proposal is not yet law, but that did not deter Duncan from sending a letter to 3,000 college administrators urging them to become “Direct-Loan Ready,” because the continued participation of the private lenders “will be in question.”
“The U.S. Department of Education must act as an impartial agent to assist colleges and universities, not as an advocate for its preferred legislative changes,” wrote Kline in a letter addressed to Secretary Duncan. He expressed his concerns after an Oct. 5th Inside Higher Ed article reported Obama officials made calls to community colleges that were “part pep rally, part support group — and part lobbying effort.” Federal law prohibits government agencies from lobbying on behalf of specific legislation.
Neither has Duncan been bashful about involving himself in state and local issues. For example, last June the secretary sent a letter to Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell, warning him that cutting K-12 spending in favor of other priorities could mean the loss of federal stimulus dollars for the state.
Diane Ravitch believes the Secretary is overstepping his role. She related a conversation in which Duncan asked her what he should do about Detroit’s notoriously low student achievement scores and plethora of scandals. “That’s a strange question,” she said, “because he’s not in charge of Detroit. One of the problems is his conception of the role of the secretary of education — how he thinks he’s the national superintendent of schools. He’s not.”
Though he may not hold such a title, the secretary is unabashedly eager to use all resources at his disposal to push for what he calls “dramatic” change in the public schools. Only a quarter into his tenure, Duncan is poised to become one of the most influential secretaries in his department’s 30-year history, for better or for worse. (Education Week, 1-6-10; 1-20-10).
Used with the permission of Eagle Forum.