Home » News & Analysis » Commentary » Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

wizardofozI have many colleagues who insist that deep down, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a real education reformer, and is a reflection of an administration that is reform-minded on critical education issues.  Because he hired this or that person, because he talks about charter schools, and because he told the press he thought that children currently in the DC scholarship program should be allowed to finish even if it is discontinued.  There are some who believe he’s “one of us.”

The Denver Post today, like Toto in The Wizard of Oz, pulls back the curtain on the image of Duncan as reformer to reveal some hard truths behind the talking points.  Like many of us, they wanted to know why a Congressionally mandated report on the DC voucher program – providing evidence of success – was released on a Friday, after Congress recessed, and as millions of Americans were leaving for their spring breaks.  Duncan denied knowing about the findings, though senior department officials have had a chance to review them since November.  Even if they deliberately kept it from the Secretary, it still begs the question as to why, knowing the Congress was moving to kill it, did he not ask where the study results were?  As the Denver Post columnist argues, Duncan discards the program as being too small to care about.  He dances around his opposition by advocating that kids already in the program continue — without demanding legislation that would allow that to happen, by the way.  Thus my colleagues’ “hopes” that he’ll come around, that reason will prevail.  They are so blinded by their dreams for this Administration that they find it impossible to believe its people could oppose something so good.

But put choice aside for a moment.  Real education reformers don’t blanket advocate for a longer school day and longer school year without noting that neither will make a difference if the school to which students are assigned lacks all rigor and accountability.  A real reformer would’ve used his clout as superintendent of his state’s largest public school system to demand that his state legislators lift the cap on charter schools before he left that state – perhaps even with the help of a sitting US Senator or two to pressure their state colleagues in return for recognition once they become president (Obama) or Appropriations chair (Durbin).

We all have hopes for our new leaders, but that doesn’t excuse them from making stupid remarks, or mistakes that hurt children.  And it doesn’t excuse us from failing to call them on the carpet.

Talk is cheap. Reformers should know better.


  1. Thank you, Ben. I don’t know the precise regulations regarding how and what scrutiny a new report bears from the Secretary, but do know from experience that the Administration is A) Aware of all studies being conducted B) Knows their deadlines and C) Is entitled to an early review of results. There is no “impartial” entity in the Education Department or any department for that matter, that works to keep research from political appointees. The latter are the bosses — if they ask for a briefing, they get it. If they ask for information to be rolled out quickly, they get it. If they ask for information to be delayed, they get that too. I’ve seen it all.

  2. Ben says:

    Great points! Just one thing to add:

    “The only way I see Duncan getting let off the hook is if there’s a hard-and-fast rule within the Department that prevents the Secretary from knowing anything about the study in advance: Does anyone out there know of or have evidence of such a rule?”

    Curious for your thoughts, too…

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *