Education secretaries are seldom household names.
Arne Duncan, the current secretary, is no different. While the man on the street in Peoria may not know Duncan, plenty of opinions exist about the man, known as a policy pragmatist, in the education world.
Some critics want Obama to ditch Duncan if he is re-elected in November. Others praise Duncan, the eighth education secretary since Jimmy Carter created the cabinet position in 1979, saying he has done a good job under trying circumstances.
Obama picked Duncan, a long-time friend, soon after he was elected president in 2008. From 2001 until then, he worked as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools.
“When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners,” Obama said when announcing Duncan’s appointment. “He’s not beholden to any one ideology, and he’s worked tirelessly to improve teacher quality.”
That same day, Duncan said, “It [education] is the civil rights issue of our generation.”
Duncan already had foes from his Chicago days, particularly those who disapproved of his successful efforts to shutter underperforming schools and replace them with charter schools.
At the Department of Education, his best known initiative has been the $4 billion “Race To The Top.” That initiative includes states receiving federal dollars for expanding charter schools and partly reviewing teachers on how well students perform on standardized tests. He has also been an advocate for reforming “No Child Left Behind.”
The National Education Association has been a strong critic, criticizing the inclusion of charter schools in “Race To The Top.” They gave the initiative a “no confidence” vote.
Mark D. Naison, a professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University in New York City, has created a website, “Dump Duncan,” which includes an open letter to Obama.
The letter, in part, states, “Although many of us campaigned enthusiastically for you in 2008, it is unlikely that you will receive continued support.” That is, unless Obama replaces Duncan.
“Arne Duncan has been a disaster as Secretary of Education,” Naison said in an interview. “The Race to the Top initiative he has headed has forced states, to compete for the funds, to evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores, forcing states to add standardized tests at a time when class size is rising, and the arts are being cut, as a result of budget cuts.”
Naison said that stress among teachers is rampant because they aren’t allowed to teach because of constant test preparation.
“If President Obama wants to revive the morale of teachers and end the test mania taking hold in the nation's schools, he should replace Duncan with a lifetime educator like Stanford’s Linda Darling Hammond and bring teachers and principals into the conversation on how to improve the nation's schools,” Naison said.
Hammond led Obama’s education policy team during his White House transition and argues in the book “The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future” that the Obama administration is on the wrong path.
But not everyone is a Duncan adversary.
Many see him as a bridge builder between the Democratic Party’s two sides – those who want to reform the system and the established teacher’s union. That task is a delicate balancing act.
Some supporters cite Duncan’s achievements in making higher education more accountable and affordable.
“He’s done so through initiatives such as Pell Grant expansion and income based student loan repayment as well as calling for institutions of higher education to report graduation, job placement and student loan default rates,” Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, said, in an interview.
Those who know Obama say he is fiercely loyal to his friends. Such devotion is unlikely to melt away if Obama wins re-election. Duncan will likely only leave his post if it is his decision.
“While his position is certainly a tough one, Secretary Duncan is an excellent administrator and communicator,” Rutherford said. “He’s the right person, for the right job at the right time.”
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com