After a week of speculation about the composition of President Barack Obama's second-term cabinet, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan implied in a Friday speech that he intends to stay in his position.
"Let me, first, sketch the outlines, or provide a mini-preview, of a second-term education agenda," Duncan told state education leaders at the Council of Chief State School Officers conference in Atlanta, according to prepared remarks provided to The Huffington Post.
Duncan had previously told The Huffington Post in September 2011 that he intended to stay for a second term if Obama asked him, saying that he hates working against a clock. Many expected Duncan, Obama's basketball buddy, to stay, but over the last week, representatives of the White House would not confirm the appointment on the record. Politico last week speculated that, should Duncan leave, former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee would be a leading candidate for the job. But nominating Rhee, a lightning rod in education policy, would signify a return to Obama's harder-line rhetoric on teachers. Education policy insiders dismissed such speculation as highly unlikely.
Duncan's first term has been marked by ups and downs with teachers and their unions. The administration spent billions on teacher hiring as part of the stimulus bill, a move praised by the unions for helping to minimize the trend of increasing class sizes post-recession. However, Duncan drew ire from the unions -- a loyal and active part of the Democratic base -- with the Race to the Top competition, which encouraged states to create more charter schools and evaluate teachers in accordance with their students' test scores. Duncan also essentially circumvented the thornier parts of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law by offering waivers to states that agreed to implement the administration's agenda.
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teacher's union, declined through a spokesperson to comment on the news that Duncan would stay.
Hari Sevugan, a Democratic strategist who now works for Rhee, tweeted that Duncan's staying is "great news."
Rhee herself lauded the news, but added that now Duncan has to make good on the promises made in his first term. "The signaling by Secretary Duncan that he will continue for another term is an enormous win for children," Rhee said in a statement emailed to HuffPost. "He deserves credit for keeping a focus on accountability while allowing for flexibility and innovation. But there's a lot of work to be done now to ensure high standards and accountability are preserved in NCLB waivers and reform, as well as administering Race to the Top grants to strapped districts -- especially with federal budget cuts looming."
As for what he is planning for the second term, Duncan said to expect more of the same. "Our basic theory of action is not going to change," he said Friday, according to prepared remarks. "Our job, in a second term, is to support the bold and transformational reforms at the state and local level that so many of you have pursued during the last four years."
Specifically, that means continuing "to provide incentives and supports" for states to implement the administration's favored reforms, which might be a tough haul, given the response at the ballot box to similar reforms during last week's elections.
The No Child waivers have proven problematic in some states like Virginia, which set different standards for academic achievement for children from different racial backgrounds.
"As states proceed with waivers, we can't let the perfect become the enemy of the good," Duncan said in his prepared remarks. "We can't let the utopian become the enemy of the excellent. And we can't let rhetorical purity become the enemy of rigorous practice and real accountability."
In response to questions after his speech, Duncan said that district-wide waivers from NCLB make no sense for him, ruling them out for the first time. (The superintendents of public school systems in Houston and Los Angeles had previously told HuffPost they were hoping for the opportunity to apply for such waivers.)
Duncan later walked back those remarks, telling Education Week in an interview that district-level NCLB waivers are still on the table.
This post has been updated to include a refusal to comment by Dennis Van Roekel, as well as comment by Michelle Rhee and Duncan's position on waivers.