A plush office chair adorns Secretary of Education Arne Duncans spacious office, but he says he rarely uses it. A glance at his appointment calendar tells us why he can't stay seated long. In a single day, Duncan can cram in a White House meeting, a round robin of major TV network interviews and a meet-and-greet at a local school.
Getting an appointment with Duncan is challenging, and it's also a challenge to put Duncan in an ideological box. Though he champions education reforms favored by Republicans such as charter schools and teacher merit pay, his opposition to school vouchers and his solid working relationship with teachers unions keep him in good standing with his Democratic allies.
The key to Duncan's success seems to be that his interest in education runs much deeper than ideological posturing. Duncan has never held down a job as a teacher or principal. He doesn't hold graduate degrees and his Harvard undergraduate degree is in sociology. Yet, to his core, Duncan believes that a lack of education can have deadly consequences, and his career following his days playing pro basketball in Australia has been focused on expanding access to quality education at all levels.
Duncan's tenure of nearly eight years as CEO of Chicago public schools was marked by numerous successes. He aggressively shut down underperforming schools and fired entire school staffs yet he found a way to stay on speaking terms with the Chicago teachers union.
The list of Duncan's accomplishments as secretary of education is extensive. Most recently, his department unveiled the Income-Based Repayment Plan, which aims to provide federal student loan payment relief for borrowers struggling to repay their loans in a tight job market. Duncan has fought for and obtained a raise in the Pell Grant ceiling to $5,500, which will expand higher education opportunities for many, key to President Obama's goal of having the U.S. lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020.
Following are excerpts from Duncan's exclusive interview with Diverse: Issues In Higher Education.
DI: You often refer to education as the "civil rights issue of our generation." In the years following the height of the civil rights movement in the '60s, many different interests have adopted the "civil rights" banner. Why, in your estimation, does education rise to the level of a civil rights issue?
AD: My mother has run an inner-city tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago for the past 50 years, and my sister and brother and I were raised as a part of her program. Many of the students who were in her program went on to do extraordinary things. A lot of my friends on the streets whom I played ball with who weren't a part of the program ended up getting killed.
What I saw was that students with educational opportunity, those with people like my mom and others in their lives--they could go on to do extraordinary things. And those without basically had nothing. This wasn't theory; this was literally life and death. There are far too many people who didn't have those opportunities who got killed. And others are doctors and lawyers. So I've lived this, and I've seen it. If you can ride on the front of a bus today, but you can't read, you're not free. Give me the poorest child from the toughest family and the toughest community. Put that child in a great early childhood program. Put that child in a great elementary and middle and high school that has AP classes preparing students to go to college--I'm actually very hopeful about that young person's future. Put that young person in a situation where they're not getting a quality education, we're perpetuating poverty, we're perpetuating social failure. So the dividing line for me today is much less around race and class than it is around educational opportunity. I'm absolutely convinced that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. …