The Legacy of Arne Duncan, Former Secretary of Education

Policy
Posted By Eliana Osborn on January 15, 2016 at 9:31 am
The Legacy of Arne Duncan, Former Secretary of Education
Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education, left, with his son, center, and President Barack Obama, right

When President Obama was elected in 2008, he selected Arne Duncan to serve as Secretary of Education.  Mr. Duncan announced his resignation in 2015 and officially stepped down in the new year as Acting Secretary of Education John King takes over.  As the voice of American education, he has not always been popular but Duncan leaves behind some important policies.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

Part of the Obama Administration push to get the economy moving again involved money for education.  $100 billion was allocated for schools.  Some of those funds went to Race to the Top, while much was spent on physical facilities improvement.  More than 350,000 teaching jobs were funded through the Act as state and local budgets were decimated by declining revenues.

Part of the Obama Administration push to get the economy moving again involved money for education.  $100 billion was allocated for schools.  Some of those funds went to Race to the Top, while much was spent on physical facilities improvement.  More than 350,000 teaching jobs were funded through the Act as state and local budgets were decimated by declining revenues.

Race to the Top

Probably the most controversial initiative under Duncan’s tenure is this grant program where schools compete for funding.  “States were awarded points for adopting ideas such as performance-based teacher and principal evaluations, higher academic standards, and raising charter school caps,” summarizes the Hechinger Report.  That was the impetus for Common Core, the standardized learning goals adopted by many states with significant political disagreement.

Because RTT was tied to so much money, it seemed a heavy-handed attempt to force states to make changes to their education systems.  Changes in how teachers are trained and measured have met with resistance, even from Democratic supporters.

In a November 2015 speech, Duncan discussed RTT’s impact:

Every state experienced a surge in the adoption of education improvement policies. Between 2001 and 2008, about 10 percent of all education policies proposed in states were actually enacted. But between 2009 and 2014, they enacted 68 percent.

These funds have helped to make it easier for more states to move from great ideas to concrete, courageous action. We didn’t invent the ideas for change — that came from states and local communities — but we have tried to provide the support and incentives.”

More Pell Grants

Part of the recovery package money was earmarked for increasing Pell grants.  Speaking at the University of Maryland, Duncan explained: “Since 2008, our administration has increased total aid available to students by over $50 billion [dollars] and increased tax benefits and credits by an additional $12 billion [dollars], all part of a total of about $150 billion [dollars] in grants and loans each year for higher education.

More than two million additional students now receive Pell Grants, and the maximum Pell award has increased by more than a thousand dollars. Many of those additional two million students are first generation college goers who now have their chance to pursue the American dream.”

Income Based Repayment Expansion

Getting more borrowers into income based repayment programs has been a small step with big consequences.  It doesn’t require any legal or policy changes, simply an emphasis on it being available.  Duncan spoke of these efforts in the summer of 2015.  “We are helping to make debt much more manageable. As late as mid-2012, fewer than a million borrowers were in income-driven repayment plans, which allow borrowers to cap their monthly payments based on what they earn. President Obama’s expansion effort has nearly quadrupled participation, and both delinquencies and defaults are down.

In very real terms, this means that the young man or woman who dreams of being a teacher, a social worker, an artist, or a nurse now knows that they can pursue their dream without worry about unmanageable debt that will prevent them from buying their first house or car. That’s good for them, that’s good for our economy, it’s good for our society.”

Revisions to income based repayment plans, in order to qualify more borrowers, were among several new rules aimed at protecting student borrowers passed by the Department of Education under the direction of Arne Duncan.

Reining in For-Profit College Abuses

Across the country for-profit colleges reached settlements, forgiving hundreds of millions of dollars in student loans acquired for useless degrees. Under Arne Duncan, the Department of Education supported suits that went after schools using deceptive recruitment practices like lying about job prospects and future earnings to get students to enroll. For-profits also faced tightened regulations on their use and access to federal financial aid funding, in an effort to lower student debt and default rates.

America’s College Promise, Teach to Lead, and other pushes are just in their early stages. President Obama’s recent State of the Union speech reveals plans to keep these initiatives rolling forward.

Mr. Duncan’s roots serving kids in need, personally and professionally, have been instrumental in looking at equity in American education.  At a primary, secondary, and post-secondary level, access and funding for all students are important concerns.  The Obama Administration, under Secretary Duncan’s leadership, has worked to make the ideal of education for all a reality.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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