Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is having a difficult summer. First, calling No Child Left Behind a “slow-motion train wreck,” Duncan announced he would circumvent the Bush administration’s law by issuing waivers to states that adopt high proficiency standards. Like Race to the Top, Duncan has used his executive authority to leverage reform. Politicians and commentators have criticized the move as an affront to democracy and the separation of powers. Next, nearly a month after actor Matt Damon’s rant against corporate reformers at the Save Our Schools March went viral, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post reported that Duncan wanted to meet Damon before he spoke. Strauss wrote, “Duncan was willing to meet Damon at the airport when he flew into the Washington region and talk to him on the drive into the city.” While the Department of Education released a statement saying they often reach out to well-known advocates of public education, the actor’s rebuff does not reflect well on Duncan and mirrors an emerging groundswell of animosity towards the Secretary. And, to make matters worse, two teachers published this, another video that has gone viral.
So, what does a beleaguered Secretary of Education do when public opinion is swaying the other way? He takes to twitter. Last week, Duncan held a digital town hall with moderator John Merrow. Twitter users tweeted questions using hashtag #askarne. Early on, Merrow admitted that many of the questions were “hostile.” Duncan certainly didn’t help his cause when he admitted to not following any teachers on Twitter. “I’m a twitter novice and I’m learning,” he quickly replied to Merrow.
Duncan using social media to connect to educators and citizens is savvy. He’s part of a number of prominent education leaders who are using Twitter to connect with stakeholders and promote ideas. However, Duncan may need to do more to repair his reputation. Duncan has never been a teacher favorite. Most expected and wanted Linda Darling-Hammond, Obama’s education advisor during his presidential campaign, to become Secretary of Education. But since then, Duncan has not done much to win over teachers. In fact, with every step forward (a digital town hall meeting), he takes two steps backward (see his open letter to teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week).
Despite education being a state function, Duncan has used executive power and money to influence education policy more than any other Secretary of Education. In some ways he has provided more autonomy. He’s often said that he is less concerned with the process than the product. However, he has used money and incentives to pressure states and districts to adopt his reforms. For instance, if a state does this, it will get a grant. If it does that, it will get a waiver.
If Duncan’s reforms work, he will be labeled a visionary who improved education in spite of popular opinion. If his reforms fail, he will be a politician who wasted money in support of corporate-backed interest groups. Either way, I am not sure that constitutional democracy wins.