At his confirmation hearing in 2009, Senator Lamar Alexander famously told Arne Duncan that “President-elect Obama has made several distinguished cabinet appointments, but in my view of it all, I think you are the best.” Duncan had already made statements indicating a willingness to embrace charter schools and break with the unions over teacher evaluations—sentiments not typically expressed by Democratic secretaries of education. And on many issues, Secretary Duncan has not disappointed, regularly pushing a pro-education-reform line, especially via his bully pulpit.
Most intriguing about Secretary Duncan—from my perspective at least—was his early embrace of the theory of “tight-loose” federalism. As he put it in 2012,“ the federal government should be tight on goals,” but state and local leaders should decide how to attain them. “Local leaders, not us, know their children and communities best—to try to micromanage 100,000 schools from Washington would be the height of arrogance,” he said.
Indeed it would be. But trying to micromanage 100,000 schools from Washington is precisely what Duncan has been doing.
In fact, Duncan’s greatest failure—on par with politicizing the Common Core and trying to kill D.C.’s school voucher program—has been his unwillingness to follow through on the “loose” part of his “tight-loose” promise. It feels like there’s been no problem too big or too small for his Department of Education to tackle. This is particularly the case for his Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which has been a prime example of executive overreach and federal interference run amok for almost six...