EXCLUSIVE -- Arne Duncan Would Stay for 2nd Obama Term

Fawn Johnson

If President Obama wins a second term, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will stay in his job, he told National Journal on Thursday. Duncan is likely to spend much of his time in a second term focusing on ways to rein in spiraling college tuition costs—a significant barrier toward the president’s goal of doubling college graduations by 2020.

“I am staying, unless the president gets sick of me,” Duncan said after speaking at a K-12 Education Forum sponsored by the Hamilton Project. That’s unlikely to happen, considering that Obama and Duncan both cut their teeth on politics in Chicago and have a strong personal relationship.

Among Cabinet members, Duncan has an outsized influence on the domestic-policy development within the administration. White House officials view the Education Department’s Race to the Top competitive grant program as one of the most successful ways the administration can encourage change without ponying up tons of federal money. Well over 30 states have embarked on some sort of school-reform efforts in hopes of winning one of the grants. Nineteen states and several districts have won them. Duncan and Obama also are enormously proud that 46 states have signed on to the Common Core State Standards for K-12 schools; they believe Race to the Top deserves some of the credit for that achievement.

A second-term Obama White House is likely to stick to low-hanging fruit in education—tackling issues that don’t require assistance from Congress and don’t get in the middle of the complexities of the teaching profession. Congress was unable to come to agreement on a bill to rewrite the No Child Left Behind education law, and is unlikely to do so in the next few years. Some observers say there is more disagreement now on where federal law should be than there was 10 years ago. Congress’s inaction has actually given the White House more power to act on its own. The Education Department administration came up with its own rubric, in the form of No Child Left Behind waivers, to help states get around the law’s outdated benchmarks.

It is telling that Duncan and Obama both kept their distance from the teachers' strike that recently took over their home town, even with one of Obama’s former advisers, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, leading the fight for a longer school day and teacher evaluations. The administration didn’t touch those issues, which are some of the thorniest questions in education. How teachers are treated, paid, and evaluated are issues that could dangerously divide Democrats. When the Chicago strike started, Duncan issued a brief statement saying only that he hoped the parties resolved their differences.

Duncan told the education forum on Thursday that he wants to continue the education projects he started in Obama’s first term, although the $100 billion for education programs that came from the economic stimulus bill in 2009 probably won’t be available the next time around. Duncan said he wants to focus particular attention on the bookends of education: early-childhood development and higher education.

It should come as no surprise that a second Obama administration would put a priority on taming sky-high college tuition. Obama's pledge to tackle college costs has been a big applause line on the campaign trail. He often holds rallies at college campuses, and earlier this year found a message that resonated with students when he pressed Congress to act to keep student-loan interest rate from rising.

When it comes to college tuitions, the Education Department is likely to function a bully of sorts, praising states and universities that make efforts to freeze (or even lower) tuitions and shaming those that keep raising the price. Duncan told the forum that the best tool the White House can use in pressing its policy agenda is “shining a light” on the best practices. But the Education Department’s websites showing the costs of college also will continue to highlight some of the worst deals for college.

Duncan put it simply: “We need to crack the nut on higher education.… Middle-class families think college is not for them.”

On early-childhood development, Duncan said, “Our Department of Education has been part of the problem” in ignoring the issue in favor of K-12 efforts. Attempting to remedy that problem, the department this year devoted a significant portion of its Race to the Top grants to early-childhood education efforts. Although the department likely won’t have a lot of extra money for several years, it can still provide incentives for states to invest in those programs. The good news on that front is that a little money goes a long way. Even a few hundred thousand dollars can shore up a flailing Head Start program in a disadvantaged neighborhood.