Much has been written about Arne Duncan’s surprise announcement on October 2 that he would be leaving his post as Secretary of Education. A longtime friend of Barack Obama from Chicago, Duncan has also been the longest-serving member of the Obama Cabinet.
Duncan’s announcement came only days after a glowing profile in Politico described Duncan’s undersecretary getting choked with emotion and crying when he talked about how Duncan was “fighting for students.” The article also noted that Duncan left “an unprecedented national stamp on a policy area with a long and strong tradition of local control.”
Pundits who favor a Washington-top-heavy bureaucracy give Duncan high marks, while opponents, especially Common Core opponents, like “white suburban moms,” whose children Duncan claimed weren’t as “brilliant as they thought they were” (because they were confused by the confusing Common Core standards and tests), see more of the same in his replacement for interim secretary: John King, former education commissioner of New York State, and the target of parents’ and the state teachers union’s calls for resignation because of his disastrous implementation of Common Core. After an astounding 20 percent of eligible students sat-out the Common Core tests, and scores dropped precipitously for those students who did take them, the state decided to shorten the test.
But another “educator,” radical jester/retired education professor from the Chicago gang, Bill Ayers, announced his availability with a tweet. Some may recall that at the beginning of Obama’s first term Ayers forwarded the name of Linda Darling-Hammond for Education Secretary. She is as radical as Ayers when it comes to education policy but has the advantage of not having set any actual bombs. She was put in charge of designing one of the two national tests, with questions intended to go along with the new emphasis on “non-cognitive skills,” or correct attitudes. But Arne Duncan was “pals” with Bill Ayers back when Duncan was superintendent of Chicago schools and Ayers was teaching future teachers about “a curriculum of questioning” or overseeing dissertations on “nappy roots” hair at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ayers collaborated with Obama and Duncan and doled out millions of dollars intended for education reform through the Chicago Annenberg Challenge to ACORN-aligned educational activities. Bill Ayers rails on today about excessive testing and corporate control in education, but that did not stop him from participating in a Department of Education conference in 2009 alongside a representative from the company that wrote the Common Core standards.
Of course, Obama was too politically savvy to openly follow Ayers’s suggestion, so he chose a pro-basketball player with a bachelor’s degree in sociology to head up the Department of Education. Politico is typical in touting Duncan’s athletic qualifications more than his academic ones. That’s for good reason. Like the “architect” of the Common Core, David Coleman, Duncan has no classroom teaching experience. He has written no books or academic papers. He volunteered in his mother’s after-school program for inner-city children in Chicago, but attended the private Chicago Lab School, which his own children will go to. (Incoming Education Secretary King’s children also attend private schools.)
Duncan’s career as an educrat began when he hooked up with a friend from school days, investment banker John W. Rogers, a basketball-playing pal of Michelle Obama’s brother. After playing professional basketball in Australia after college, Duncan was appointed by Rogers to direct a nonprofit foundation for mentoring children. According to his government website profile, Duncan then became “part of a team” that later started “a new public elementary school built around financial literacy.”
Duncan comes from Chicago’s elite but wrote his senior thesis at Harvard on Chicago’s urban underclass. He parlayed that concern to government practice. As Chicago superintendent his main objective was to increase the scope of schools, to make them round-the-clock “community centers” offering homework help, health care, and three squares a day. This has also been his objective at the federal level. This is how a once “quiet outpost in the power landscape of Washington, D.C.” acquires power. Under Duncan’s tenure, the Department of Education has been busy, indeed, sending out notices to parents on everything from summer meal programs to “Dad Talk” to advice on bullying. There has been an aggressive push for “parental engagement” even a “parent camp” at the capital. (As I pointed out, “parental engagement” is a ruse for getting parents on board the feds’ programs.) Duncan even floated the idea of government-run boarding schools.
Duncan has expanded the political reach of the Department as he weighed in on the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” gun control (at opportune times after school shootings), and financial aid for illegal aliens. Initiatives have included so-called “immigrant integration” and “green schools.” The Department has addressed “suicide and race.” There has even been outreach to barbers to close the achievement gap. Duncan marched with Al Sharpton in the Black Lives Matter protest.
Duncan has done his part in Obama’s campaign to expand the reach of the government under the guise of civil rights. He oversaw the expansion of the department’s Office of Civil Rights as the department investigated sexual assault on college campuses. He pushed the nation’s schools to change discipline policies because of the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of minority children.
School administrators are more fearful of disciplining minority students than ever and college campuses hold ridiculous workshops on giving sexual consent. Frederick Hess charged that Duncan “supersized” the federal role by turning the Office of Civil Rights into “an invasive army of lawyers bent on micro-managing local schools” and infusing the issue of fair discipline with “the cause of racial grievance.” Traditional modes of justice based on fairness and neutrality have been abandoned for the “critical race theory” Obama once taught. Hess cites Michael Greve of the George Washington School of Law in noting that the new standard “‘goes a million miles beyond the requirements of the Constitution; of Title VI; and even of OCR’s own (legally dubious) disparate impact regulations.’”
The supersizing goes beyond grade 12 to college or higher education. Increasingly, “K-16” or “P-20” (pre-school through graduate school) are being used in the educrat world. The change in terminology will get people thinking in a new way, but it also reveals the expansion of the Department into what was once considered off-limits to the federal bureaucracy: college curricula, standards, and testing. Duncan’s imprint on this sphere will be discussed in the next installment.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research website. The featured image is of Arne Duncan, Obama’s Education Secretary, announcing his stepping down after seven years/Photo: Andrew Harnik.