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Letter to Arne Duncan, Next Secretary of Education

duncanYou’ve been called a “great guy” by democrats who think you will help them grow school reform.  You’ve “made a lot of progress,” say university types.  You’re the “compromise candidate,” because the unions have endorsed you.

Now comes the hard part.

Frankly, you’re one of the few national education leaders I do not know, which gives me some rare objectivity in the matter. That, and the fact that my organization has no horse in the race, no member group to protect, no current ties to you at all.

So, let me offer some fresh advice about what you can expect – and what might take you by surprise.

1) Everyone will want to claim you as his own.  Allowing them to do so will compromise your efforts.

From where you will sit just across from the Capitol building you’ll see dozens of advocates converge on your department. They’ll arrive at the invitation of career department employees, who will beckon them to provide ideas for the new Secretary. Your incoming advisors will have little control over this. The bureaucracy has a way of creating environments and momentum entirely on its own.

As these groups come and go, they will tell journalists about their sense of your department. They will say, “We’ve been told he’ll fully fund our program” or “the Secretary is working hard to ensure all three year olds eat before school.” Some might say “he’s the biggest charter school supporter we’ve ever had and he’ll show that soon.”

And the Congress, just a few blocks away, will attribute all of these comments directly to you. The solution:

• Let the hard working career pool know upon your arrival that you and the others appointed by the President are the only ones allowed to speak about policy (though, of course, you’ll consult them regularly)

•Articulate your agenda and your priorities in the first week to avoid speculation and dissension

2) The Department of Education’s most senior level staff, from the attorney general’s office to the division manager in charge of state data collection, operates differently than your staff in Chicago.  They are seasoned employees who focus on implementing the law as it is written, not as it should be. Change comes slowly to them and their colleagues.

The first advice I was given when I arrived at my newly appointed post in the education department years ago was illustrative – “Things take time here,” they said. “Don’t expect to change policy overnight. It takes years.”

Yeah. Thanks. No.

You must choose two kinds of people to join you –Washington insiders who know the ropes and passionate reformers.  Both types are necessary to ensure key agenda items do not get lost in an “it takes time” comfort zone.

3) Saying you are “for” charters and performance pay will not make you a national reformer.

Supporting increases in the federal grant programs for charters does not constitute a reform pedigree. Directing those funds to states where charter laws are strong – as the law requires – gives you that pedigree. Likewise, backing and pushing through Congress a performance pay plan will not make you a reformer.  Using your bully pulpit to urge the unions to give up seniority and embrace comprehensive pay for performance will.

You can demonstrate how much you really do want to achieve by doing a few simple things that cost no money:

• Deliver an early “State of Education” speech, to follow the President-elect’s first major address as President. Making education the subject of the first major cabinet address after the President speaks puts the priority where it should be—at the top.

• Articulate the role of the Education Secretary versus a local superintendent, taking care to be bold about a national vision that embraces accountability and choice.  Make it clear that you will expect superintendents to do their part in making such ideas flourish.

Just like on the basketball court you cherish, Washington requires skilled players who learn their opponents’ moves before they act.

We reformers look forward to the tip off as well as getting in the game, Mr. almost-Secretary.


  1. Erika Sueker, Director, Golden Independent School says:

    Dear Education Secretary-elect Arne Duncan,
    Below is the letter I just submitted on Obama’s “ideas” site. Then I read the excellent Dec. 29 letter from Jeanne Allen in Edspresso, and I thought I’d pass this on to you as well.

    Dear President-elect Obama,
    In your Blueprint for Change education video, you mentioned the need for alternative schools. As an educator with a PhD in the science of thinking and learning, I want to tell you that supporting scientifically-designed choice schools is absolutely the right idea for education. Alternative schools are the ones already teaching with the emphasis you called for on research and problem solving skills, and, like you, they understand that skills are transferable to different areas of expertise. We don’t need to resort to curricular solutions, such as whether one should learn algebra at age 8, 12 or 15, or whether it’s more important to study about Argentina or Zaire, (as some curriculum define) which particular poems to read to become well-rounded!

    Any revision of the No Child Left Behind must include supporting choice schools for *all kinds* of learners and families and situations (not just “all children.”) But throwing money at the problem will not help. Putting kids in school earlier will not be a magic solution. Fundamental change means also supporting real choices such as special needs schools, schools for the gifted, and specialty schools for talented artists, technicians, and scientists.

    You also mentioned that the government must work with industry to support the schools. My question is, how do private schools fit into this picture? Will the government partner with industries who choose to support private school choices? Can non-religious K-12 private schools partner with public schools to provide supplemental education (such as homeschool, evening, and summer programs?) And don’t forget that many of our world-class universities are private universities. With your early childhood money, will private pre-schools be eligible for support?

    Also I must ask about vouchers. Vouchers are a bi-partisan, American issue and there is no need to try to make democrats hate public schools before they will choose a private school. You can encourage public schools to be the best they can be AND support the public’s ability to attend private school. You can also require volunteer service on the part of parents utilizing a voucher– much the same as the $4000 service-after-college program you mentioned.) Private schools enroll 10% of the population– This is a percentage of the American public big enough for the government to support, but small enough to be no overall threat to public education. Even with vouchers available, most people will contine to choose their neighborhood public school if their child is happy and thriving. If private schools are serving as an alternative for 10% of the population (as they have been for over one hundred years), shouldn’t they should receive 10% of the people’s federal education money?

    If vouchers (even with criteria) are not in your funding plan, or if the government feels like the president in the show “West Wing,” (“the day we support private schools is the day we’ve given up on American public education”) then one way to support industry so they can in turn support private schools is to subsidize companies and foundations that support excellent alternative education through cash or volunteering– even schools that serve a small number of students.

    Thank you for listening. It would be an honor if you would answer my questions. The above opinion is about education, not lobbying or politics– Golden Independent School is a 501c3, non-political educational institution serving children ages 4-1/2-12.

    Good luck with your *changing* presidency!

    Dr. Erika Sueker
    Director, Golden Independent School
    1280 Golden Circle
    Golden, CO 80401

  2. pschunk says:

    Dear Mr. almost-Secretary,
    Please do what is right for kids and support all forms of educational reform. It scares me that Mr. Obama says he is for charters but not vouchers. Why would that be? It is concerning since he can afford a private education for his children but will not support others that cannot afford the same for their kids.
    Please remember, this is not about supporting one program over another. This is not about any teachers or their unions. This is about giving access to a ‘good, free, public education’ for all children.
    I wish you the best and give your my support. I am keeping a watchful eye on what happens in Washington and am hopeful that this administration will really make the necessary changes that will benefit all kids.
    Please visit our website, Ridgeview Classical Schools is making huge strides in public education and I encourage you to look at our model.

    Peggy Schunk
    Ridgeview Classical Schools
    Fort Collins, CO 80525

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