the arne archives

A retrospective of Arne Duncan’s complicated relationship with New York

Arne Duncan speaking at Al Sharpton's National Action Network conference in 2014.

Arne Duncan was no stranger to New York during his tenure as U.S. education secretary.

New York City is where he stumped for a yet-to-be-named federal stimulus package that would define his legacy. He returned again and again over the next six-plus years to visit schools, weigh in on contentious debates, and meet with both city and state education officials as he pushed his priorities.

On Friday, Duncan said he’ll step down from the job at the end of the year. By picking former New York Education Commissioner John King to replace him, Duncan ensured that New York’s close connection to the U.S. Department of Education will continue.

We dug through Chalkbeat’s archives, which date back to before Duncan joined the Obama administration, to pull out the highlights and lowlights of his time in New York:

Duncan eyes NYC as early Race to the Top ally

Just weeks into his tenure in 2009, Duncan held a press conference at a Brooklyn charter school, surrounded by the city’s mayor, schools chancellor and union presidents. New York City, he declared, was a model district for how he wanted to spend $4.5 billion in competitive grants, later dubbed Race to the Top.

“Districts like New York are remaking public education in America with bold and innovative new learning models, higher standards and teacher quality initiatives,” Duncan said at the press conference (Watch video here). “We must support those efforts. We can’t go backwards. And that’s why this money, this stimulus package is so critically important.”

Duncan got involved in local politics, too. Later that year, he personally intervened during the tense legislative battle over renewing mayoral control and helped convince an advocacy group to change its public position to support the extension in its entirety. Duncan then praised the New York Post for the tabloid’s role in extending mayoral control, an usual move for a sitting official in the Obama administration.

Duncan’s school visits

A P.S. 214 first-grader tells U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the story of Rumplestiltskin today.
Duncan visits a first-grade classroom at P.S. 214 in 2010.

Over the years, Duncan visited many New York City public schools. Often, but not always, it was to push his policy priorities and agenda.

In May 2010, he visited a trio of schools in Brooklyn to again curry public support for his Race to the Top grants. New York was eligible for $700 million of that pot, but only if the state legislature changed its teacher evaluation and charter school laws, among other commitments.

In 2012, Duncan toured storm-swept parts of Staten Island in the weeks after Superstorm Sandy hit New York City. He visited schools and assessed the damage with UFT President Michael Mulgrew and Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

Duncan also was major proponent of New York City’s new career and technical education offerings. He spent two years visiting participating schools to advocate for funding to duplicate the CTE model in high schools throughout the country.

The school that got the most attention was Pathways in Technology Early College High School, which offers college-level courses and culminates in a free associate’s degree in the field of computer science or engineering. The secretary was so impressed by his visit, he returned in 2013 with President Obama.

Duncan also visited Aviation High School and New York Harbor School, which offer their own speciality CTE credentials.

“He wasn’t like this super politician,” said Deno Charalambous, Aviation’s principal. “He wanted to know what makes the school work.”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew (left) and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tour a storm-swept area of Staten Island between school visits in 2012 in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (left) and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tour a storm-swept area of Staten Island between school visits in 2012 in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

Duncan keeps tabs on New York

As New York worked to implement the changes it promised to make in exchange for $700 million in Race to the Top grants, Duncan found himself often weighing in on contentious issues raised by parents and teachers.

He threatened to pull federal funds after a state delay over teacher evaluations in 2012, then praised the state for pulling off a deal. Duncan returned in 2013 to try to quell concerns that parents had about a tougher set of new tests aligned to the Common Core. In 2014, he backed Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his pursuit of a tougher teacher evaluation system.

“I think the governor has actually shown real courage and has frankly been a leader nationally,” Duncan told Chalkbeat in a 2014 interview after speaking at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference.

Sometimes, Duncan’s opinions weren’t welcomed.

In 2013, as the Common Core outrage grew among parents in New York, Duncan said some of the criticism was coming from “white suburban moms” who were finding out “all of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.” Duncan apologized for the comments, but they became emblematic to many of how  education policymakers had become tone deaf to criticism during a period of change.

This year, Duncan again drew criticism when he said that he had not ruled out punishing schools or districts in New York that had large numbers of students who did not take the tests, a potential violation of federal law. Duncan did not pursue sanctions in the end, but held to his belief that testing was just something that children needed to get used to.

“It’s just part of most kids’ education growing up,” he said. “Sometimes the adults make a big deal and that creates some trauma for the kids.”

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.