If nothing else, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made waves. In the last four years, he has brought about incredible changes in education policy, no thanks to Congress. That's a point that education writer Richard Colvin (a contributor to this blog) makes in a recent column in Kappan magazine. "The breakdown of the legislative process hasn't prevented the U.S. Department of Education from pursuing what may well be one of the most far-reaching education reform agendas ever," Colvin writes. Duncan shepherded $4 billion for Race to the Top competitive grants and created No Child Left Behind waiver program for states. Let's not forget also that the Common Core State standards are now...well...common.
This has not made everyone happy, particularly conservatives who don't want to see new education policies put in place by fiat. Fordham Institute Executive Vice President Mike Petrilli (whose boss Chester Finn is also a contributor on this blog) argued in reaction to Colvin's article that the White House could have pushed for legislation instead of the NCLB waivers, even if it didn't like where Congress was going. "Both the Senate and House passed reauthorization bills out of their respective committees, and had the administration wanted to get them across the finish line, it could have pushed for it, and I think achieved it," Petrelli said in an e-mail. Had that happened, NCLB would have been more or less dead. But it would have been a sound legislative process.
It is debatable whether Congress would have been able to pass any bill reauthorizing the complex elementary and secondary education system. It is also worth asking whether the administration did the responsible thing in responding to the gridlock, which had real consequences for states, with its "We Can't Wait" waiver program. But it is beyond question that everyone involved in the debate has been shocked at how difficult it is to accomplish anything. Everyone involved in the talks agrees with 90 percent of the changes that are on the table. Colvin quotes one Capitol Hill aide who quit out of frustration. I have met staffers who say that Congress has regressed more than 10 years in its thinking on education.
In spite of all this, Duncan broke through these barriers and instituted programs that education researchers will be studying for the next decade. If President Obama wins reelection, Duncan will stick around, but his impact probably won't be as large as he continues the programs he started. He won't have $48.6 billion in economic stimulus money to play with, and he will instead have to focus on where he can cut to meet budget constraints.
It doesn't matter because Duncan has already made his mark.
What lessons can we learn from the Education Department under Arne Duncan? What is his legacy? How important is the waiver program in considering next steps for NCLB--i.e., assessments, testing, disaggregation? How important is Race to the Top in encouraging state innovations? Are there other, better ways that an agency can deal with an intransigent Congress? What did Arne do for us in Obama's first term?