Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Imperial Educrat

Does a U.S. Secretary of Education really need a siren-wailing motorcade to clear away the rabble as he rushes to a media interview in Washington, D.C.? That's the first of many indicators in this New York Times profile that the man in charge at the department, Obama basketball buddy Arne Duncan, might be a little out of control, a little too intoxicated with a sense of power and self-importance. And that, as the story indicates, means he poses an unprecedented threat to the independence of local schools.

"Mr. Duncan is a man in a hurry. He has far more money to dole out than any previous secretary of education, and he is using it in ways that extend the federal government’s reach into virtually every area of education, from pre-kindergarten to college.

“This is the most assertive secretary of education we’ve ever had,” said Carl Kaestle, an education historian at Brown University who has studied the federal role in 20th-century American schooling.

Mr. Duncan has run a $4 billion school-improvement competition that led many states to change education laws to reflect his prescriptions. This month, the department is distributing $3.5 billion for the overhaul of thousands of failing schools. Mr. Duncan has been shuttling frequently to Capitol Hill to outline plans for a rewriting of the main federal law on public schools.

In March, Congress terminated a huge, bank-based college loan program, replacing it with one run out of the Education Department, and redirecting $36 billion in bank subsidies into Pell grants for low-income students.

Now the administration has begun writing rules to ensure that students will not assume burdensome tuition debt for career training that is unlikely to land them well-paying jobs.

“This administration’s education vision is a very activist, expansive role for the federal government,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, who has watched education policies evolve in Washington for nearly 30 years. “We’re never going to be like France, where the education minister can look at his watch and tell you what every fourth grader is doing. But inevitably, with more federal education initiatives, more federal money, comes more strings, more federal control.”

Not everything Duncan has done as Ed-Sec is bad; in fact, on many issues, he convincingly mouths the rhetoric of a reformer. And federal encroachment into the formerly-off limits realm of local public schools really got a boost from Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, with No Child Left Behind. But even a self-styled reformer is something to be wary of if his goal is total federal hegemony over local schools -- since such powers, once granted, are unlikely ever to be rolled back.

We've heard warnings for years about the rise of the "Imperial President." In Barack Obama, this idea takes on its most tangible form yet. Maybe, in Duncan, we have our first "Imperial Educrat."

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