Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday, was unusually candid in his remarks on the failures of the US’s K-12 system. He spoke of the US’s high incarceration rate and said that too often youth of color or from low income backgrounds are the ones who end up populating the prison system.
“Every day, as a society, we allow far too many young people to head down a road that ends in wasted potential. Sometimes, we are complicit in the journey. We need to do more to change that,” he said.
In a surprise announcement just two days later, the White House revealed that Duncan will step down as department secretary in December. His successor is John King Jr, who currently holds a position titled “Senior Advisor Delegated Duties of Deputy Secretary of Education,” a role he assumed in January 2015.
King will take over as acting secretary after Duncan relinquishes his post. By not nominating King as secretary, the White House sidestepped the need for confirmation from the Republican-led Senate.
In a letter to his staff on Friday, Duncan cited the stress of commuting between his work in Washington and his family in Chicago as the reason for his departure.
“I’ll be honest, I pushed Arne to stay,” President Barack Obama said on Friday afternoon. “But I also know from personal experience how hard it is to be away from your family on a sustained basis. So while I will miss Arne deeply, he has more than earned the right to return home.”
The president praised Duncan’s accomplishments over his seven-year term, noting that high school graduation rates were at an all time high, and spoke of the outgoing Education Secretary’s genuine passion for helping students across the nation.
Duncan’s tenure at ED has been highlighted by his Race to the Top program in which states competed for federal grants and its role in legally pursuing for-profit colleges for their predatory financial practices. He also was the target of criticism and apologized for his department’s sudden implementation of new criteria for the popular Parent PLUS Loan program without consulting first with those that it would devastatingly impact most — historically Black colleges and universities.
Duncan and King joined Obama at a press conference on Friday afternoon. Duncan became emotional speaking of his parents, who were educators in Chicago. “All our life we saw what kids could do when given a chance. That’s why we do this work today,” he said.
King is a former New York State education commissioner and, at age 40, will be one of the youngest Cabinet members in US history. As the New York education commissioner from 2011 to 2014, King weathered his share of controversy, drawing ire from parents and teachers over the implementation of the Common Core in the state.