U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has maintained that he would stick around for a second term if President Barack Obama is re-elected and asks him to stay on. Now, Duncan has that chance. During the next four years, Duncan—and any successor—will confront some significant issues.
Waivers: His crew has approved No Child Left Behind flexibility applications for 34 states plus the District of Columbia. These are incredibly complicated, evolving plans that are already creating controversy—and the hard work of implementation has barely gotten started. Virginia had to redo its school performance targets—after the feds had already approved the methodology behind the numbers—after a huge firestorm from civil rights groups. In several states, education advocates are loudly complaining about rules that allow states to set different school targets for different subgroups of at-risk kids. And on the national scene, many are growing alarmed at the small role graduation rates are playing in accountability system. What's more, as new governors and state chiefs take the helm in waiver states—especially if they are from a different party than those who crafted the waiver plan—we can expect some states to start wanting to substantially change their plans. How agreeable with the U.S. Department of Education be? The first test case may be in Indiana, where Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was upset by Democrat Glenda Ritz, who has some very different ideas about K-12 education in the Hoosier State.
Race to the Top: The president's signature education initiative will come to an end within the next two years—or at least the original iteration in which 11 states plus D.C. shared $4 billion. What will states have to show for all of this money? Did states actually do everything they said they would? Did the money move needle on not just policy, but also on student achievement? Or will it be too soon to tell? Either way, Race to the Top will face a lot of scrutiny during the president's second term. (And actually, so will the School Improvement Grant program, which got supercharged as part of the 2009 economic-stimulus package. The same goes for the Investing in Innovation program. People will be asking the same questions of SIG and i3.)
NCLB reauthorization: Duncan will have to work with Congress, or at least make a show of it, on NCLB reauthorization. But given that Congress still remains divided, a quick (two years or less) reauthorization is probably a pipe dream. So perhaps more importantly, if NCLB doesn't get reauthorized, how will Duncan approach enforcing NCLB in states that do not, for various reasons, have a waiver? And will it be easy for current waiver states to renew their waivers, which generally expire after two years?
Fiscal issues: Fight, fight, fight. Duncan will have to fight hard to spare education programs, such as Title I and special education, from cuts as Congress and the White House figure out how to get out of a big fiscal mess. He will have to fight even harder to get any substantial new money for his competitive grant programs, such as Race to the Top. And perhaps the hardest fight in terms of solving the underlying problem will involve Pell Grants, which have a huge structural deficit even as the president made college affordability a huge campaign issue.
Common core: Duncan will have to walk a fine line between supporting states as they implement common standards and tests, and, in the words of Checker Finn, not loving them to death. The campaign offered up some fiery rhetoric on the common core, particularly from Republicans who said the country is proceeding down a path toward a national curriculum. Some speculate that Bennett's loss in Indiana was partly due to his support of common core.