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Arne Duncan opened the gates to a powerful network. House Committee on Education and the Workforce Dem, CC BY-NC-ND

Arne Duncan’s legacy: growing influence of a network of private actors on public education

Arne Duncan is leaving the US Department of Education in December. Reactions to his legacy have been mixed. Some see him as a heroic reformer, and others a well-intentioned but overreaching bureaucrat. He has been called the third secretary of education for George W Bush or the center of stormy education politics.

As researchers of education policy, we see him differently: the hub of a network of policy advocates. As the head of the federal Department of Education, he actively facilitated private actors’ influence on public education policy.

Private actors and connections

From early 2009, Arne Duncan opened the federal agency’s gates to a powerful network. He used the network, and was sometimes used by advocates for their own purposes.

Duncan was not just the cabinet secretary who played pickup basketball with the president. He was the head of the department with the highest number (five) of early political appointees who had personal connections to President Obama.

He was joined in 2009 by some of the most powerful members of a Democratic-leaning group of education reformers: among them were Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton, a former leader of education policy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Joanne Weiss, the Chief Operating Officer at NewSchools Venture Fund who became Duncan’s chief of staff. NewSchools Venture Fund is a venture philanthropy firm that sponsors the growth of charter school chains.

In 2009, both organizations were part of a growing network of advocates which Michigan State University political scientist Sarah Reckhow has called the Boardroom Progressives.

These reformers have largely consisted of private actors, including leaders of education nonprofits, charter school founders and other nontraditional school leaders whose essential resources for reform come from the private wealth of major foundations, an approach that Berkeley education professor Janelle Scott has termed “venture philanthropy.”

Did those connections matter?

The network that swirled around Duncan gave him ideas that he promoted through the Obama stimulus, and also the skilled personnel to run those programs.

Members of Duncan’s reform network were partly the genesis and potentially the beneficiary of a grant program, Race to the Top, that required applicants to expand opportunities for charter school creation, eliminate firewalls between student test scores and teacher evaluation, and commit to so-called “college and career-ready standards.” (The most common commitment of applicant states to such standards was to the Common Core State Standards.)

Once Duncan’s department announced the Race to the Top program, the network connections were critical to promoting it. Under Duncan, Weiss ran the Race to the Top program.

But building support for his policies was also political: since 2001, federal education policy has often provided rhetorical and political license to state politicians who wanted support for policies they wanted anyway – Paul Manna, Government Professor at William & Mary College, called this license “borrowed authority” in his book School’s In about the politics of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Race to the Top continued this pattern, and many members of the network of education advocacy organizations supported the Common Core and the expansion of charter schools in many states.

How did networks influence policy? US Department of Education, CC BY

Finally, the network was critical to directly or indirectly building state capacity in the Race to the Top years. In some cases, network members became critical state leaders, as they had under Duncan in Washington, DC.

In other cases, members of the network served as free consultants or as paid contractors for states that did not have the expertise to apply for or carry out Race to the Top projects. The Gates Foundation provided US$250,000 worth of application consulting services to states that agreed with the foundation’s eight-point set of criteria.

Why care about these networks – isn’t this how politics works?

At one level, the influence of the education reform network around Duncan is not a surprise: political scientists have written for decades about the relationships between private actors and public policy. That intrigue is the source of terms such as regulatory capture and iron triangles.

If public-private relationships are not new in policymaking, we should also not assume that the network around Duncan has been monolithic or inherently cohesive. As political scientist Patrick McGuinn explained, the alliances have been evolving rather than centralized and tightly planned.

And yet, we should worry when policies are shaped substantially outside ordinary public politics by an increasingly private set of actors, whose relationships with the public sphere can simultaneously be rivalrous, symbiotic and parasitic.

One does not need to be paranoid to worry about the concentration of decision-making in the hands of people who are friends and who are not accountable to the general public.

The legacy of Duncan

Maybe you approve of Arne Duncan’s policies and are happy with his network because it moved policy. But after the Republicans swept the 2010 midterm elections in dozens of states, a conservative network was able to exert its own, older agenda in state house after state house.

That ascendant Republican network, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), used the reform rhetoric and regulatory momentum of Arne Duncan for its own ends. Some of those goals mirrored Duncan’s – teacher evaluation tied to student test scores and expanded charter schools.

Others did not. Since 2010, many Republican-controlled states have attempted to restrict teacher collective bargaining and created or expanded private school voucher programs.

Arne Duncan did not invent political networks. And yet, to use a term of education professors Janelle Scott and Catherine DiMartino, he has acted as a “gatekeeper” by bringing a private network to the fore in education, and further opening public education to privatized influences.

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