Credit: Education Writers Association.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discusses the status of the No Child Left Behind law in an interview at the Education Writers Association annual National Seminar in Chicago in April.

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Updated Oct. 3, 2015

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who clashed frequently with California education officials on a range of K-12 education policy issues, announced that he will resign his position in December.

He will be succeeded by former New York Education Commissioner John King Jr., who was appointed deputy secretary of education under Duncan in January.  However,  in an unusual move, President Obama named the 40-year-old King to be acting secretary, and will not formally nominate him to be secretary to avoid a confirmation fight with Congress during his last year in office.

Duncan is only one of two remaining members of Obama’s original cabinet who have been with him since he assumed office in 2009.  (The other is Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack.)  In an email sent to his staff this morning, Duncan said “as a comparatively small team, often under challenging conditions and timelines, our staff has continued to offer example after example of dedication beyond the call of duty.”

The administration and California education leaders found common ground on some major reforms, most notably on implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

However, one of the major points of disagreement was the administration’s insistence on linking teacher evaluations to test scores. The requirement was one of the conditions that the department imposed on states seeking a waiver from penalties of the No Child Left Behind law. California is only one of seven states not to have received a waiver. Gov. Jerry Brown said that Duncan had no authority to impose requirements for teacher evaluations under the NCLB law, and submitted California’s waiver application without the teacher evaluation component.

The disagreements with California since Brown became governor extended beyond just teacher evaluations.   Brown took issue with the top-down accountability model heavily based on test scores that Duncan advocated, an extension of the accountability model embodied in the No Child Left Behind law.  Instead, Brown has promoted an approach that gives local school districts more control and decisionmaking powers, including over how their progress should be assessed.

At one point, in a showdown with the state Legislature, Duncan threatened to withhold funding to California if the Legislature approved legislation to suspend the previous California Standards Tests and in its place have students take field tests of new Common Core aligned tests — that Duncan was himself promoting.   As on the teacher evaluation issue, Duncan got support on this one from several California-based advocacy organizations. But after months of negotiations, he eventually backed down, and granted the state a waiver from administering the old tests.

“History will show that compared to some secretaries of education, Duncan had a significant impact on national and state public policy,” State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said Friday. “But a number of his policies did not fit well with the specific context in California.”

When the Obama administration rejected California’s first application for a waiver in 2012, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said, “It is disappointing that our state’s request – which enjoyed such strong support from parents, teachers, administrators, and education advocates across California – has been rejected.”

Duncan started giving state waivers from NCLB in 2011, after a deeply divided Congress could not agree on changes to reauthorize the law. That remains the case, and so the law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, limps along as written in 2002 with flaws that both Republicans and Democrats agree should be fixed, although they disagree over how to do so.

With the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, it seems even less likely that a bipartisan majority will be able to agree on a rewrite of the law before Obama leaves office.

However, while rejecting California’s application for a statewide waiver, eight California school districts, which formed the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, did agree to the conditions and received the nation’s only waiver given specifically to school districts.

California was also unsuccessful in getting significant funding from the administration’s signature education program, the $4.3 billion Race to the Top program. It did however receive $75 million in Early Learning Challenge grants for early education and preschool initiatives from the Race to the Top fund. Three small school districts also received funds through the program.

On higher education, California and the administration found much more common ground with initiatives such as the expansion of Pell grants, simplifying the federal application for student financial aid, and its crackdown on for-profit colleges that did not deliver on their promises. As part of that effort, federal officials shut down Corinthian Colleges, which enrolled thousands of California students.

Duncan clearly represented the views of the president who appointed him.  If that was not the case, he would not have remained in his cabinet for as long as he did .  As a result, it is unlikely there will be any major changes in the administration’s education policies in Obama’s last year in office.

Tapping King to become the new secretary of education suggests there will be no significant change in California’s relationship with Washington, at least when it comes to the teacher evaluation issue.  King’s tenure as commissioner of education in New York was a turbulent one, especially in his clashes with teachers unions through his aggressive push to link scores on new Common Core-aligned tests with teacher evaluations.

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