Now That Arne Duncan Is Out, Is No Child Left Behind to Stay?

The education law’s death is just around the corner.

Charlie Neibergall / AP

In a weird way, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s surprising resignation is good news for the people who want the beleaguered No Child Left Behind overhauled as soon as possible.

Duncan, one of the final two members left from President Obama’s original cabinet, announced on Friday that he will be stepping down in December. Known for his creation of his controversial Race to the Top grant program and push for teacher accountability, Duncan is widely seen as one of America’s most powerful education secretaries in recent history.

His imminent departure, combined with those of House Speaker John Boehner and Representative John Kline, may be nerve-racking for No Child Left Behind’s critics because Congress is—or at least was—so close to successfully reauthorizing the five-decade-old omnibus education law from which it arose. That law, known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007, but political infighting and other hiccups prevented that from happening year after year.

Now that the House and Senate have each passed bills to reauthorize it, Congress is closer than ever to actually doing away with the Bush-era policy—particularly because the Senate’s version is, thanks largely to its co-writers Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, a bipartisan proposal. But the pressure is on: As they stand, the House and Senate bills are substantially different, and the two chambers need to reconcile those differences for the legislation to make it to the president’s desk by the end of the year.

Boehner, Duncan, and Kline are key players in this process—Boehner is the last sitting member of Congress to have helped write No Child Left Behind, while Kline chairs the House education committee; Duncan because he is the chief executive of the department charged with carrying out the policy.

Now that all three are on their way out, it may seem like the rewrite is doomed. But it could be just the opposite, said Tamara Hiler, the education-policy advisor at the think tank Third Way. In fact, Duncan’s announcement on Friday, she said, could “actually be a sign that this is going to get done faster … that [it] could actually speed up the timeline.”

“Between him and John Boehner and John Kline all [leaving], this sort of sends a message to everyone that it’s now or never,” Hiler said. “There’s a culmination happening.” The four members of Congress chairing the education committees, she continued, “have a reason to want to get this [rewrite] done now, to take this issue off of the table” and focus on preparing for all the other impending uncertainties—who will replace Boehner as speaker of the House and Obama as president, to name a few.

Duncan’s announcement could also be an indication that the future of the rewrite is all but sealed, according to Hiler. The prospective law is likely to rein in the education secretary’s responsibilities, giving states more of a say in how schools are to be held accountable for student performance and progress. The amount of power No Child Left Behind gave the feds was a big reason it was so controversial; the same factors are also why Congress has struggled so much to agree on a new law. Although it’s not yet clear what the House and Senate compromise would look like, chances are it would leave the U.S. Department of Education with a much more limited role in education reform.

“Even though [the new law] wouldn’t go into effect immediately, it’s sort of a symbolic time for him to go rather than him staying around for another year trying” to navigate that transition, Hiler said. In other words, any new law would’ve likely made Duncan a Lame Duck 2.0.

The prolific, polarizing U.S. education secretary will be stepping down a year before his term was supposed to wrap up. In an internal email announcing his decision, Duncan indicated that it had become too taxing for him to travel back and forth between Washington and Chicago, where his family now lives and where he had served as the school district’s superintendent before being tapped to serve in the Obama administration.

“I pushed Arne to stay, but I also know from personal experience how hard it is to be away from your family on a sustained basis,” Obama said at a press conference on Friday, noting that Duncan has been one of the country’s most “consequential” education secretaries. Obama cited a list of reforms spearheaded by Duncan, including in the areas of early-childhood education, teaching standards, high-school graduation, and college attainment. “He bleeds this stuff,” Obama said. “He cares so much about our kids, and is so passionate about this work.”

Obama has requested that the deputy education secretary, John King Jr.—versus undersecretary Ted Mitchell, who focuses on higher-ed issues—to assume Duncan’s role. (Obama hasn’t formally nominated King—“an unconventional move,” according to the Associated Press, that obviates the need for a confirmation from the Senate.) According to Education Week, the appointment of King, who served as New York’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014, “may put a fresh face on the administration’s efforts on K-12 policy at a critical moment, as Congress wrestles with the future of the federal role.”

Duncan’s departure is met with mixed reactions. Many education leaders give him credit for his aggressive reform strategies. He’s also recognized for helping usher through stimulus money that supported struggling schools and paid for 325,000 teaching jobs as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Critics highlight the contentious nature of his focus on charter schools as well as an overwhelming emphasis on testing and the Common Core State Standards, which have been widely derided as negatively affecting the student learning experience.

“Arne’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anybody else," Obama said on Friday.

Alexander, who heads the Senate’s education committee, said in a statement:“Arne Duncan was one of the president’s best appointments. When we disagree, it is usually because he believes the path to effective teaching, higher standards, and real accountability is through Washington, D.C., and I believe it should be in the hands of states, communities, parents and classroom teachers.”

In an email to his team on Friday obtained by The Washington Post, Duncan highlighted two students he encountered during his time as secretary, including Russhaun Johnson, who struggled with homelessness while his mother was in jail. Now an accomplished poet and president of his senior class, Johnson and his success offers an example, Duncan said, of what teachers, schools, and the broader education system can help achieve—when it works: “Serving the president in the work of expanding opportunity for students throughout this country has been the greatest honor of my life.”