Policy Update: Secretary of Education Resigns

The White House announced today that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plans to resign from his cabinet position in December. Duncan’s tenure as Secretary has often been marked by his support for charter schools, Common Core, and the use of standardized testing as a measure for evaluating teachers. He has also strongly supported Race to the Top, the White House’s controversial competitive granting program. In the higher education arena, Secretary Duncan campaigned to make colleges and universities more transparent and pushed for policies to regulate for-profit colleges.

Duncan is one of the few remaining members of President Obama’s original cabinet. His successor will be former New York state commissioner John King, one of the Department’s Deputy Secretaries of Education. King joined the Department in January 2015. As education commissioner of New York, he helped implement new standardized tests and pushed Common Core — similar achievements to those of Duncan during his tenure as Secretary. In a message to Department of Education staffers, Duncan offered his support for King, and reassured that he “comes to this role with a record of exceptional accomplishment as a lifelong educator — a teacher, a school leader, and a leader of school systems.”

What Does This Mean for ESEA?

What the resignation of Secretary Duncan (coupled with the upcoming departures of House Education and the Workforce Chair John Kline [R-MN-02] and Speaker of the House John Boehner [R-OH-08]) means for the reauthorization of the ESEA is still very much up for debate. Education pundits are of a mixed mind on the topic, with no clear consensus. Here are two ways of viewing the situation in a nutshell:

GLASS HALF FULL: Boehner and Kline will both be interested in legacy, and actions taken in October (and throughout the rest of the fall) could set the stage for reauthorization, and send them out with a bang. Also, conventional wisdom would indicate that they are no longer beholden to the far right, whom significantly influenced a great deal of their actions and decisions. In this scenario, we are to take the Secretary at his word that he believed that he has accomplished all that he can in the Obama administration (theoretically, irregardless of the ESEA) and wishes to spend more time with his family.

GLASS HALF EMPTY: The new speaker (whomever it may be) will almost certainly be highly uninterested in compromise, and it’s unlikely that anything Chairman Kline or anyone else does or says will be greeted with a willingness to broker a deal with Democrats. A new speaker is likely to be even farther to the right of Boehner, and inclined to make a name for him or herself by making life difficult for Democrats (and moderate Republicans), at every chance they get. Education reform would be one of those opportunities. In this scenario, it is plausible that Secretary Duncan saw the writing on the wall that the ESEA reauthorization would not be successful, and decided it was simply time to go.

To be clear, at this time, we have no reason to believe that the House/Senate conference committee process will not proceed as planned, and that an honest, forthright attempt at reauthorization will not continue. The music education community MUST remain focused on supporting the congressional members and staff engaged in achieving this goal. To that end, in the weeks to come, NAfME will remain in close touch with key committee offices, and will continue to promote our agenda of highlighting music and arts in a new national education law.

There are many twists and turns on the bumpy road to achieving public policy victories. We have a long way to go before we rest, but — make no mistake — the journey continues! Please stay tuned for further developments.

Chris Woodside; Assistant Executive Director, Center for Advocacy, Policy, and Constituency Engagement, October 2, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org).

*Thanks to NAfME Legislative Policy Advisor Ronny Lau for his contributions to this report