Arne Duncan Is Serious: Americans Should Boycott School

The former education secretary thinks parents need to take radical action to change the country's gun laws.

Duncan speaking into a microphone with Obama behind him
Then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan with President Barack Obama at a town hall in Iowa in 2015 (Charlie Neibergall / AP)

The former education secretary says it’s time for American families to boycott school to fight for stricter gun laws.

Over the weekend, Arne Duncan, who served in the Obama administration, replied approvingly to a radical suggestion from a former colleague. “Maybe it’s time for America’s 50 million school parents to simply pull their kids out of school until we have better gun laws,” tweeted Peter Cunningham, another Obama-era education official. Duncan’s reply: “This is brilliant, and tragically necessary. What if no children went to school until gun laws changed to keep them safe? My family is all in if we can do this at scale. Parents, will you please join us?”

After Duncan tweeted, Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, said she was on board. So did Jim Manly, the superintendent of KIPP public charter schools in New York City.

Duncan has been pushing for tougher gun laws since leaving the Obama administration. I spoke with him on Monday about school shootings and why he believes in a boycott. (Duncan is a managing partner at Emerson Collective, which owns a majority stake in The Atlantic.) The conversation that follows has been condensed for length and clarity.

Adam Harris: Can you expand on the idea behind this boycott, beyond what you said on Twitter?

Arne Duncan: This gun issue has been one that has been the source of tremendous personal pain for me most of my life. I’ve talked about it extensively. It’s actually what I’m working full-time on now in Chicago. I’ve said very publicly that I thought my greatest failure when I ran Chicago Public Schools was the number of our students who died under my watch—who were killed. So, this is not a new issue, by any stretch. Sandy Hook—I talked about it, the president talked about it—that was the worst day for me in D.C. It was the worst day of President Obama’s presidency, and he dealt with the hardest issues on the planet, by definition. And you have these series of mass shootings, whether it’s churches or malls or movie theaters or baseball fields or schools. And I don’t know if we’re numb, or helpless, or feel hopeless, but any objective look at the data shows that it just doesn’t happen in other countries.

So, that’s a long way of saying: The fact that we can’t get that done in this country, it just—it breaks my heart. I’m angry. I’m infuriated.

Harris: How likely is it that a massive boycott would actually happen?

Duncan: The short answer is: We’ll see. We put this out a few days ago, and it was definitely intended to be thought-provoking. And you think about, you know, not all schools, but many schools, come back to school after Labor Day, that first week of September. That would give us a little time to see whether it makes sense. But there is clearly, as of now, very significant interest.

And, you know, teachers have walked out for higher pay, kids have walked out on the gun-violence issue, and my question is: What have we as parents done? We’re not protecting our kids. And, again, that’s the most fundamental thing. You want your kids to be safe. That’s instinctual. And the fact that we’re not doing that—we’re not willing to think radically enough to do it—I can’t stomach that.

So, the thought was, let’s see if it develops, let’s see if it continues to pick up momentum. But if you could do something in September, you’d see whether politicians move or not. If they move, fantastic. If they don’t move, then you’re looking at the November elections. Then you act.

Harris: You’ve worked with a lot of these politicians you’re talking about. Do you think that this is something that would push them to action?

Duncan: Clearly everything that we have done to this point has failed. We have failed to move them. So, this is definitely a radical idea, but I think I can make a pretty compelling case that we have to think radically to get them to do something different. I also think that many politicians—not all, but many—just act out of self-interest. And I know that many on the Republican side think they’re losing a whole generation of young people. And young people, they’re sick and tired. They’re not going to walk away from it. So, if for nothing other than self-interest, there’s an opportunity here.

So, nothing we have done to date has worked. We have absolutely failed. I have failed. We’ve all failed. But I am also more hopeful today than I have been at any time since the Sandy Hook massacre.

Harris: And is some of that hope due to the student activism in the wake of the Parkland shooting?

Duncan: Absolutely. The young people are absolutely leading the country where we as adults have failed to take it. And I am more hopeful today precisely because of their strength and their commitment.

Harris: Organizing a mass school walkout seems like a logistical nightmare, if you think about things like figuring out what to do with students whose parents might not be able to take off work to take care of them during school hours. How do you think a boycott would work, practically?

Duncan: Let me just say, I more than recognize how difficult and impractical this is. But the Montgomery bus boycott went on for a year. These were poor people who denied themselves access to public transportation, and they managed to do that for a year and change the world. I would argue that it is also very difficult and impractical to send your kids to school and have them shot and killed. It’s very impractical and difficult to try to go to a movie theater, or a concert, or the mall, or to worship in church, and to be murdered en masse. And there’s nothing easy or practical about this, but it’s all relative. And we’re dealing with a reality today that’s infinitely harder than that.

So, those are very important considerations, and we have some time to think those through—and we’ve had a lot of people saying they would step up and help. But, I think, if this was easy, it would have happened, and it’s going to take something hard. When we were part of the administration, we played by all the rules after Sandy Hook. We did a study, we did a report, we worked with Congress, and guess what we accomplished? Nothing. So, playing by the rules hasn’t worked. We need to change the game.