Education Secretary Arne Duncan To Step Down : NPR Ed After nearly seven years in office, Duncan bows out, leaving behind a remarkable legacy of achievement and controversy.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan To Step Down

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After nearly seven years in office, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is stepping down in December. The former head of Chicago Public Schools came to Washington with his friend, a newly-elected President Obama. As NPR's Cory Turner reports, Duncan's tenure was remarkable for two reasons.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: First, he got a lot done, and I mean a lot. The list is too long for the two and a half minutes I have here, so let's focus on perhaps the biggest thing he did, which was also one of the first things he did.


ARNE DUNCAN: For states, for district leaders, for unions, for businesses and for nonprofits - the Race to the Top is the equivalent of education's reform, the moon shot.

TURNER: He muffed it there, but it was a big moment. Race to the Top wasn't a law, but a giant pot of stimulus money - more than $4 billion worth offered to beleaguered states soon after the Great Recession. Duncan used it to entice them to make sometimes controversial changes in the classroom. At the top of that list - adopting new common standards and evaluating teachers.

Rick Hess is director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and he says it was clear from the start that Duncan wanted to use his bully pulpit to push some big ideas.

RICK HESS: Duncan's biggest legacy is that he dramatically increased the role of the U.S. Department of Education in the nation's schools.

TURNER: When states clamored for relief from the No Child Left Behind law, Duncan was there offering waivers, again, in return for implementing his big ideas. Duncan was a champion of charter schools and a believer in the power of testing to reveal inequality in America's classrooms. At the higher ed level, he oversaw an expansion of Pell grants, he cut banks out of the federal student loan business and cracked down on for-profit colleges.

Remember we said earlier that Duncan's tenure is remarkable for two reasons? Well, the other isn't about those ideas, but about how he fought for them. Hess says Duncan wasn't afraid to butt heads even if it meant making enemies out of Republicans and traditional allies alike.

HESS: He tackled issues that are difficult for a Democrat - especially as a Chicago Democrat - to tackle.

TURNER: His support for testing and teacher evaluation systems infuriated the nation's teachers' unions which repeatedly called for him to step down. Why is he leaving now? Well, he told staffers in an email that he wants to return to Chicago to be with his wife and kids. This afternoon, the president tapped Duncan's deputy, John King, Jr., to succeed him as secretary. King is former education commissioner for New York state, where, on a smaller stage, he fought many of the same bruising battles that Duncan did. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

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