Williams: Mr. Duncan Goes from Washington, and Education Policy Loses a True Public Servant

I’ve spent the last few days thinking about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s impending departure, and I can’t keep Sen. Jefferson Smith out of my mind.
Remember him? He’s the Mr. Smith who “Goes to Washington” in the old Frank Capra film. Jimmy Stewart plays the aw-shucks Senator who — in the face of overwhelming reasons not to — still believes in the basic goodness and efficacy of American government. He nearly succumbs to the badness of Washington, only to win out in the end.
Well, Hollywood may love Washington, D.C., but the District almost never writes its actual storylines to L.A. standards. Duncan, an endlessly positive guy who always sounded like he’d make it to the end of the Obama Administration, finally gave out. (4 things you need to know about Duncan’s replacement, John King)
There will surely be speculation about just what finally pushed him to announce his resignation last week, but I bet that the email he sent to notify his staff at the Department of Education might actually just be all there is to know:
So it’s with real sadness that have come to recognize that being apart from my family has become too much of a strain, and it is time for me to step aside and give a new leader a chance. I haven’t talked with anyone about what I’ll do next, and probably won’t for a little while — I’m simply returning to Chicago to live with my family. I imagine my next steps will continue to involve the work of expanding opportunity for children, but I have no idea what that will look like yet.


Sure, from most D.C. denizens, “leaving to spend more time with my family” is code for “see everyone in federal court next month” or “I swear, I was just talking to the girl in that hotel room.”
But Duncan is a rare creature in Washington, a man so earnest and decent that his critics always seem a little wary attacking his fundamental, almost-overwhelming commitment to children. Read Mike Grunwald’s recent Duncan profile in Politico. National Education Association leader Lily Eskelson Garcia said, “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think Arne is decent and honest.” Randi Weingarten, her counterpart at the American Federation of Teachers agreed: “I believe Arne is very much dedicated to children.”
Republican Senator Lamar Alexander (a former Secretary of Education) is leading GOP efforts to rewrite No Child Left Behind to dramatically curtail the Department of Education’s oversight of state education policies. He and Duncan have been at odds over the bill for months, but Alexander couldn’t help himself in his response to Duncan’s announcement, calling him “one of the president’s best appointments.”
Duncan is easy to love. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, which in Washington, D.C. is a trait so unique as to be a liability. What other major Beltway figure can you imagine agreeing to suit up for an exhibition game on NBA All-Star weekend? (Note: watch the highlights — Duncan dominated the game.) This is a guy who talks about having “to pinch [himself] some days” — because he’s the Secretary of Education. Somehow, even after years of coming to work in the (ugly, gloomy, soul-crushing) Lyndon B. Johnson Building, Duncan exudes optimism about his work and the country’s future. He’s a can-do guy.
By contrast, when it comes to educational equity, Duncan is deeply serious. “Arne bleeds this stuff,” said President Obama on Friday. He’s the first Secretary of Education to work just as hard on early childhood education issues as he does in the K–12 and higher education spaces. While he has offered states flexibility on a host of issues related to federal accountability in No Child Left Behind, he’s insisted that they move towards rigorous academic standards and a strong focus on improving opportunities for the underserved.
And Duncan extends his commitment beyond the school walls. He was one of the Administration’s earliest, most vocal, and most consistent supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. For better or worse, he’s used every one of his office’s available policy levers to address matters of injustice — educational and beyond. “I’ve cried more today than I have in a long time,” he said during his Friday press conference addressing his departure. And indeed, he broke down near the end of his remarks, saying, “I love this work.”
In a normal place, in a normal human being, this is a recipe for success. If you’re having a dinner party, you want to invite people who are smart and interesting but not self-absorbed. If you’re starting a team, you pick folks who care deeply about success and aren’t concerned with raising their own profile.
But in politics, Duncan’s blend of a small ego and deep commitment to his work runs up against the basic functioning of things. This is a world populated by people who prefer caution to determination. It is a world where self-effacement is usually career suicide, and where a man who genuinely isn’t concerned about his standing in the polls or the newspapers is deeply confusing. Read that Politico profile carefully, and you’ll start to notice that Duncan’s critics seem almost more puzzled by him than anything else. Why, you can hear them wondering, won’t he respond to the usual stimuli and response? Why isn’t he backing down when we snap at him?
Political actors across the spectrum have all struggled to figure Duncan out. Core liberal groups — led by the teachers unions — have fought his efforts to use federal funding streams and accountability systems to pursue educational equity. As a result, conservative education reformers have struggled to find their footing when criticizing Duncan. Once upon a time, many of them shared his goals and argued that some future Education Secretary should use methods much like Duncan’s to pursue them. But that hasn’t stopped them from throwing him under the proverbial school bus.
So now Mr. Duncan heads home from Washington. He leaves a considerable legacy in education policy. He leaves a nation of schools that are improving. He leaves a foundation for moving toward new investments in high-quality early childhood education.
But Duncan also leaves with an implicit question about the state of our public education discourse going forward. What sort of person would we rather have? A person who trades in the currency of politics? A person who barters away principles when it’s expedient? A person who cares less about their work and more about themselves? If serious, hopeful people like Duncan ignite such pushback — and gridlock — then the future of education policy is bleak indeed.
So: godspeed, Arne. You were always too good for us anyway.
Photo by Getty Images

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