U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan came to Washington to reform K-12 schooling. But as he announced Friday that he plans to leave office in December, it appeared more likely that his legacy would be defined by the unprecedented distress among millions of Americans struggling to pay back student loans.
The Debt Collective, a pro-borrower group, said it hoped that the next secretary "has the wherewithal to clean up the department's mess and do what's right."
Duncan will be replaced by John B. King Jr., a senior adviser who has been doing the job of deputy secretary since January even as President Barack Obama has declined to nominate him for the post. Multiple news outlets reported Friday that Obama would not formally nominate King to be secretary either, avoiding a Senate battle. Like Duncan, King has spent most of his career so far focused on K-12 issues.
Duncan said in a note to his staff that he was leaving to spend more time with his family, who had recently moved back to Chicago. He had previously said he planned to stay at the Education Department until the end of Obama's second term.
"Serving the president in the work of expanding opportunity for students throughout this country has been the greatest honor of my life," Duncan said in the note. "I imagine my next steps will continue to involve the work of expanding opportunity for children, but I have no idea what that will look like yet."
A member of Obama's Cabinet since January 2009, Duncan sought to promote national standards on K-12 education and greater use of standardized tests to gauge student learning and teacher effectiveness. He enthusiastically supported charter schools, a sector that produced many of his top aides, including King. But the problem of college student loans grew dramatically, demanding more attention and leading to repeated missteps and ignored opportunities.
Duncan's first two years on the job saw some victories. The Obama administration expanded Pell Grants, which are aimed at college students from low- and moderate-income households, and killed a bank-based federal student loan program that enabled lenders to book handsome profits without suffering the losses associated with loan defaults. The latter was a goal long sought by many Democrats.