Mr. Duncan’s Sad Legacy

On Monday, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan returned to Washington DC to speak at a Georgetown University conference. Trailing a wake of failed initiatives and toxic politics, Duncan once more leapt at the chance to impugn the motives of those who disagree with him on questions of education policy. Eager to justify his refusal to feel unduly bound by federal law, Duncan said of the lawmakers who wrote the Every Student Succeeds Act, “Without naming names of senators, how many times do you hear them talk about kids . . . about African-American kids, and Latino kids, and special needs kids and English-language learners?” He said, “We can have honest debate on lots of things but where is your heart coming from? What’s your true motivation? I doubt the motivations of some.”

Well. One thing I’ve learned during a quarter-century in education is that there is no value in attacking one another’s motives. It’s a dead end and a recipe for destructive division. Indeed, the notion that we should only engage those whose motives pass a litmus test shows a disturbing ignorance about how democratic government works. Free nations rest upon the capacity of reasonable people to disagree about important things. Serious people understand that debates over federal education policy reflect honest disagreement about what government can do, should do, and how to go about it—and not just who cares about kids. If you don’t accept that, the rationale for democratic government crumples. If you’re sure you are good and your opponents are evil, then your obligation is to impose your will—the law be damned.

That brings us back to Mr. Duncan. While I deplore much of what he did during his tenure at the Education Department and think he did some real harm while in office, I observed upon his departure last fall that, “I grant his sincerity, even as I profoundly disagree with much that he did . . . He strikes me as a good man who took on a demanding job and did it in the best way he knew how. By all accounts, he was good to his colleagues and subordinates, and a beacon of personal integrity. That counts for a lot.”

Mr. Duncan never granted that same courtesy or respect to those who disagreed with him. Taken with his own virtue, Duncan has blithely treated all but his yes-men and fellow travelers with disdain. As Secretary, in 2013, Duncan told the American Society of Newspaper Editors that concerns about the Common Core were solely the product of a lunatic “fringe.” He famously belittled the concerns of “white suburban moms” for fearing the Common Core because it would reveal that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.” He dismissed Republican concerns about Obama’s preschool proposals as “morally indefensible” and tantamount “education malpractice”—and then later expressed bewilderment at his trouble drumming up GOP support. He insisted he had no choice but to issue waivers from No Child Left Behind because Congress wouldn’t do its job, and then did his best to sabotage Congress’s efforts to reauthorize the law.

Those convinced that they really care and uniquely get it can find it easy to dismiss any disagreement or concern as a sign that others just don’t. It doesn’t help that Duncan spent the better part of a decade surrounded by sycophants who seemingly shared his belief that he possessed a singular concern for the nation’s kids—and courtiers who were only too happy to sing his praises in pursuit of access or funding, as long as he shared their priorities.

Fast forward to Monday, when Duncan was asked if he would apologize for having asserted, on his way out of office, that the Every Student Succeeds Act wouldn’t limit the Department of Education in practice because, “Candidly, our lawyers are much smarter than many of the folks who were working on this bill.” In his response, Duncan was initially scornful, saying, “My one sentence is that important? Are you kidding me?” He then flippantly allowed, “I’m happy to apologize, happy to do whatever, you know.” Finally, he added, “Let’s get to work.” One cannot help but reflect how much more compelling Duncan’s “apology” would have been had he not simultaneously announced that some of those he wants to work with are unnamed bigots of suspect motivation.

While in office, aided by billions of stimulus dollars, his NCLB “waivers,” and some off-the-leash lawyers, Duncan operated more like a Chicago pol than the U.S. Secretary of Education. He sabotaged trust in the executive branch’s commitment to the law of the land and the Constitution. He helped turn teacher evaluation and common standards from sensible ideas into rushed, clumsy, and divisive litmus tests. He brought the snippy partisanship of Chicago to America’s educational conversation and casually cast aspersions on the judgment or motives of those who disagreed with him.

Since 2009, Arne Duncan has done more than anyone to inject into education the distrust, divisiveness, and indecency of contemporary American politics. He came to office backed by bipartisan goodwill—at Duncan’s confirmation hearing, Senator Lamar Alexander said that president-elect Obama had “made several distinguished Cabinet appointments” but “I think you are the best” of them—and cavalierly did his best to fracture it. He politicized nearly all that he touched. He shows no understanding of any of this, much less any hint of remorse. I am through granting him the presumption of goodwill that he denies to others.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when reporting that Cawdor died with honor, Malcolm observes, “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.” It’s too bad that Mr. Duncan didn’t figure this out regarding his own departure from public office. Instead of magnanimity, reflection, or statesmanship, he’s opted for bluster and braggadocio. As for Mr. Duncan’s belated and insincere “apology,” he can keep it. He’s done enough harm. I can only hope that, at long last, he will take his certitude and self-righteous meanness back to the streets of Chicago.

– Rick Hess

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up

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