Arne Duncan was no stranger to New York during his tenure as U.S. education secretary.
New York City is where he stumped for a yet-to-be-named federal stimulus package that would define his legacy. He returned again and again over the next six-plus years to visit schools, weigh in on contentious debates, and meet with both city and state education officials as he pushed his priorities.
On Friday, Duncan said he’ll step down from the job at the end of the year. By picking former New York Education Commissioner John King to replace him, Duncan ensured that New York’s close connection to the U.S. Department of Education will continue.
We dug through Chalkbeat’s archives, which date back to before Duncan joined the Obama administration, to pull out the highlights and lowlights of his time in New York:
Duncan eyes NYC as early Race to the Top ally
Just weeks into his tenure in 2009, Duncan held a press conference at a Brooklyn charter school, surrounded by the city’s mayor, schools chancellor and union presidents. New York City, he declared, was a model district for how he wanted to spend $4.5 billion in competitive grants, later dubbed Race to the Top.
“Districts like New York are remaking public education in America with bold and innovative new learning models, higher standards and teacher quality initiatives,” Duncan said at the press conference (Watch video here). “We must support those efforts. We can’t go backwards. And that’s why this money, this stimulus package is so critically important.”
Duncan got involved in local politics, too. Later that year, he personally intervened during the tense legislative battle over renewing mayoral control and helped convince an advocacy group to change its public position to support the extension in its entirety. Duncan then praised the New York Post for the tabloid’s role in extending mayoral control, an usual move for a sitting official in the Obama administration.
Duncan’s school visits
Over the years, Duncan visited many New York City public schools. Often, but not always, it was to push his policy priorities and agenda.
In May 2010, he visited a trio of schools in Brooklyn to again curry public support for his Race to the Top grants. New York was eligible for $700 million of that pot, but only if the state legislature changed its teacher evaluation and charter school laws, among other commitments.
In 2012, Duncan toured storm-swept parts of Staten Island in the weeks after Superstorm Sandy hit New York City. He visited schools and assessed the damage with UFT President Michael Mulgrew and Chancellor Dennis Walcott.
Duncan also was major proponent of New York City’s new career and technical education offerings. He spent two years visiting participating schools to advocate for funding to duplicate the CTE model in high schools throughout the country.
The school that got the most attention was Pathways in Technology Early College High School, which offers college-level courses and culminates in a free associate’s degree in the field of computer science or engineering. The secretary was so impressed by his visit, he returned in 2013 with President Obama.
“He wasn’t like this super politician,” said Deno Charalambous, Aviation’s principal. “He wanted to know what makes the school work.”
Duncan keeps tabs on New York
As New York worked to implement the changes it promised to make in exchange for $700 million in Race to the Top grants, Duncan found himself often weighing in on contentious issues raised by parents and teachers.
He threatened to pull federal funds after a state delay over teacher evaluations in 2012, then praised the state for pulling off a deal. Duncan returned in 2013 to try to quell concerns that parents had about a tougher set of new tests aligned to the Common Core. In 2014, he backed Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his pursuit of a tougher teacher evaluation system.
“I think the governor has actually shown real courage and has frankly been a leader nationally,” Duncan told Chalkbeat in a 2014 interview after speaking at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference.
Sometimes, Duncan’s opinions weren’t welcomed.
In 2013, as the Common Core outrage grew among parents in New York, Duncan said some of the criticism was coming from “white suburban moms” who were finding out “all of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.” Duncan apologized for the comments, but they became emblematic to many of how education policymakers had become tone deaf to criticism during a period of change.
This year, Duncan again drew criticism when he said that he had not ruled out punishing schools or districts in New York that had large numbers of students who did not take the tests, a potential violation of federal law. Duncan did not pursue sanctions in the end, but held to his belief that testing was just something that children needed to get used to.
“It’s just part of most kids’ education growing up,” he said. “Sometimes the adults make a big deal and that creates some trauma for the kids.”