Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s announcement that he’s leaving the Obama administration to return to Chicago has set off an expected round of analyses from both the right and the left. As the longest serving member of the Obama Cabinet, Duncan naturally attracted his fair share of supporters and critics from all sides of the political spectrum. Perhaps the best way to judge Duncan’s tenure is to ask whether or not he met the challenge he gave himself in an April 2009 editorial he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, “School Reform Means Doing What’s Best for Kids,” where he said:
The only open question is whether or not we have the collective political will to face the hard facts about American education. We must close the education gap by pursuing what works best for kids, regardless of ideology. In the path to a better education system, that’s the only test that matters.
Unfortunately, Mr. Duncan’s method of framing the question betrays an ideology that dominated his tenure and policies — the belief that “education reform” constructed by experts working in Washington dispensing billions of dollars to other experts working in state capitals if they adopt the strategies favored by the federal experts will result in doing what’s best for kids. As he said in the WSJ editorial at the very beginning of his tenure, he planned to use the billions of dollars in education funds authorized under President Obama’s stimulus package to “drive reform,” adding, “we will require an honest assessment of key issues.” In other words, Mr. Duncan would act as the education czar, dispensing billions to those who agreed with him, and ignoring those who disagreed. Mr. Duncan was not shy about expressing his view that the funding he was offering the states should not only be used on programs he favored, but also control how the states spent their own money. As he put it:
Through the guidance we have published on our web site, we explicitly told governors, state education chiefs, mayors and district superintendents that the application for competitive grants will begin by asking how noncompetitive grant funds are being spent. If they used the funding to invest in more of the same ineffective programs, they will not receive grant money.
Mr. Duncan, during his tenure, was true to his word, requiring any state that wanted a slice of the billions in stimulus funds he dispensed during his tenure to give “four assurances” before they could receive any funds — progress in raising standards, in recruiting and retaining effective teachers, in tracking students’ and teachers’ performance, and in turning around failing schools. While his supporters can point to some incremental improvement in one or two areas, the skeptics have the stronger arguments given the continuing poor academic performance of U.S. students on state, national, and international tests championed by Mr. Duncan, the low rate of high school seniors graduating ready for college without needing remediation, and the continued failure of America’s education system to prepare students to compete for jobs in a 21st century economy.
I believe Mr. Duncan, while a man of good intentions, did not accurately identify the real question that must be answered: Do you believe that all parents should be given equal opportunities to choose the best education for each student, regardless of wealth or zip code? In his 2009 WSJ editorial, he came close when he said: “When parents recognize which schools are failing to educate their children, they will demand more effective options for their kids. They won’t care whether they are charters, non-charters, or some other model…”
However, he failed to give all parents the means and financial resources to effectively choose the best options for each child, keeping control of the moneys instead in the hands of local school boards, governors, and his own department, effectively playing a shell game with parents by showing them just how bad their schools were, without giving them a way to escape.
What should Mr. Duncan have done during his seven years if he really wanted to “do what’s best for kids”? First, recognize the limited role of the federal government in public education, both in terms of the amount of funding provided, as well as the legal status of education under the Constitution. The federal government provides, at most, 10 percent of the total education funding in the United States. Instead of diluting the impact of those funds by disbursing them across a number of favored programs, Mr. Duncan should have supported converting annual federal funding into the one program with the greatest chance of providing equal opportunity — create 5 million federal education savings accounts of $10,000 each for the poorest families so they could have the chance, as well as the resources, to choose the best school for their children.
By concentrating his efforts on maximizing parental choice, Mr. Duncan would have recognized the limited role given the federal government in education by our Constitution, as explicitly stated by the Supreme Court in its 1973 decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. The Court held that education was not among the rights given explicit protection by the Constitution, nor could it find any basis for suggesting education was implicitly protected. While many have disagreed with that decision, education has long been deemed to be the province of “local control.” While state politicians have interpreted that term to mean that locally elected politicians have the right to control education, most state constitutions actually give the power to families, not politicians, implicitly recognizing the 1925 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters where the Court explained:
… the fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State: those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.
While Mr. Duncan generated criticism from those on the left and right, I believe that he was a well-intentioned man who attempted to do what he believed was best for kids. However, as with most politicians, his actions speak far more loudly than his words. When his wife and kids moved back to Chicago over the summer, the kids wound up attending a private school where Mrs. Duncan was hired to teach. I have absolutely no criticism of Mr. and Mrs. Duncan doing what was best for their children; however, during his tenure as the man in control of billions in federal spending, Mr. Duncan should have fought to allow all parents to decide what’s best for their kids.
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