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How Much Sway Does Arne Duncan Have in Local Decisions, Anyway?

On its front page today, the Washington Post reported on how U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his top Education Department deputy lobbied newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to not pick Joshua Starr, the superintendent in Montgomery County, Md., as the city's new schools chancellor.

Veteran educator Carmen Fariña was the pick.

Statements from Education Department officials in the Post's story didn't really confirm or deny the specific account. (And when I talked to them today, both spokesman Massie Ritsch and acting deputy secretary Jim Shelton said they didn't want to say anything more. Same for Starr spokesman Dana Tofig.)

In the past, Starr has criticized Obama- and Duncan-era ideas, such as Race to the Top, and he's called for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing.

A couple of interesting things to note about this front-page story. First it was written by Answer Sheet columnist and sometimes Duncan critic Valerie Strauss. (She has questioned why the secretary went to Haiti on official business, argued that schools would be "better off" if Obama administration policy reflected also-critic Diane Ravitch's research and concerns, and questioned President Barack Obama's "faulty" education logic.")

And second, it remains to be seen whether new Mayor de Blasio, who has pledged to move away from Duncan- and Obama-backed policies such as charter schools and linking standardized testing to teacher evaluations, would even take to heart what Duncan wanted. For that matter, it's questionable just how much sway Duncan has at all in local decisions.

Regardless, as I've written before, Duncan has always considered the bully pulpit one of his most powerful leverage points—especially now that his gobs of stimulus-era money are gone and he's given nearly every state a No Child Left Behind Act waiver. He's gotten involved before in numerous local decisions, from supporting Kaya Henderson as the District of Columbia school system's chancellor to backing Rhode Island keeping Deborah Gist as its state chief. So, you can expect Duncan to keep getting involved in local decisions throughout Obama's second term. The big question is how much Duncan's opinion matters.

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