US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said today that he will step down in December after serving in the role since 2008. President Obama has selected Deputy Secretary Dr. John B. King Jr. to fill the position.
Duncan, the longest serving member of President Obama’s original cabinet, had earlier this year suggested that he would remain for the duration of the Administration. But in a letter to his staff, Duncan opened with a personal reason for his decision:
“After several months of commuting between my family in Chicago and my job here in DC, I have made the decision to step down in December….it’s with real sadness that [I] have come to recognize that being apart from my family has become too much of a strain.”
Other factors are also surely at play. Duncan’s departure comes at a time when many of his efforts to reform American education have come under attack. His support for charter schools and initiatives such as Race to The Top and Common Core State Standards have attracted controversy and rancor, particularly from teachers’ unions. The National Education Association called on him to resign in 2014. In July, both the House and the Senate entertained legislation that would reduce the Secretary’s legal authority. Those bills are still pending.
Duncan has been one of the most active—and visible—education secretaries since the department was established by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. He’s been one of the closest advisors to the President as well his pickup basketball pal.
Over the past six and a half years, education has become a front and center political issue. Long-time questions have resurfaced: How does America create equitable opportunities for all students? How much should states and local governments—in contrast to the federal government—shape education? What’s the role of the private sector and foundations in influencing education policy and practices?
As Secretary, Duncan has consistently tried to drive the conversation back to students’ rights and concerns, even if those choices put him at odds with established interest groups. Unions have fought the Department’s efforts to use student test scores to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers; for-profit schools in higher education have been dismayed by the Department’s tough scrutiny of their practices.
Duncan expressed “real sadness” at leaving the administration, but put forward full faith in his replacement.
“What gives me peace in this decision...is the extraordinary talent of John and our leadership team,” he wrote to his staff. “Over the years I have known him...I’ve come to recognize John as one of the most passionate courageous, clear-headed leaders in our field.”
If appointed by Congress, John B. King Jr., age 40, will become one of the youngest US Cabinet members. He was born in Brooklyn to an African-American educator and a Puerto Rican New York City public school teacher. He holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a law degree from Yale, and a doctorate in education from Columbia.
Like Duncan, King supports charter schools. King started Boston’s Roxbury Prep charter school in 1999 and managed Uncommon Schools beginning in 2005. He entered New York state’s education department in 2009, and by 2011 became its education commissioner, where he oversaw the adoption of Common Core standards. (He turned down an offer to serve as superintendent of Newark schools in 2010 after Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to the district.) King joined the US Department of Education as a senior advisor in January 2015.
Even if King continues the current policies of the administration, the longer-term outlook is unclear. Democrats in the presidential race have offered lukewarm support, at best, for the Obama administration policies.
Duncan’s future, too, is up in the air. “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,” Duncan wrote in his letter to his staff.