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Teachers unions hope Hillary Clinton will undo Arne Duncan’s work

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan pushed states into adopting Common Core standards, oversaw a massive expansion of charter schools, and urged states to tie teacher pay to performance. The next presidential administration — Republican or Democrat — could roll back that legacy.

Duncan announced October 2 that he'd step down at the end of the year. And whether Duncan's influence will endure depends on the next presidential administration. Some expert observers argue that a Clinton administration could undo Duncan's work — and teachers unions are hoping she will.

"I think she's going to be different," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said of Clinton when the union endorsed her this spring. The National Education Association did so last week. "She’ll follow the evidence, and she’ll talk to people and give people their due, instead of thinking about things ideologically, as you’ve seen in the last 10 years."

How Arne Duncan transformed education in the US

Arne Duncan

Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2010. (Ryan Kelly/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

As education secretary, Duncan used a combination of carrots and sticks — federal grants and waivers from penalties under No Child Left Behind — to get states to change their approach to education. He encouraged states to allow more charter schools, to sign on to the shared Common Core standards, and to tie teachers' professional evaluations to their students' test scores.

Under Duncan's tenure, 43 states have launched the Common Core. Thirty-five states now require test scores to be a "significant" factor in how teachers' performance is judged. States have changed their laws to be more open to charter schools.

All of these policies have been controversial, including with teachers unions. Earlier education secretaries mostly used their influence to issue important reports or bring governors together to work on shared goals. But Duncan was actually reshaping local education from Washington, actions that led one Republican senator to describe him as "chairman of the national school board."

Duncan says he just provided political cover for growing support for education reform at the state level: "You see this much change and improvement in states that didn’t get a nickel," he told me in an interview in September. "While the money was important and significant, it was actually probably less important than the space and the opportunity to do the right thing."

How Clinton could dismantle Obama's education legacy

The Clinton campaign hasn't yet released its K-12 education agenda — but there's already a battle over what type of president she would be on education. Both reformers and unions point to Clinton's lifelong interest in education to argue that she would take their side.

Clinton has so far received endorsements from the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, the two national teachers unions. Both have harshly criticized Duncan and his reforms.

When Clinton answered questions from the National Education Association, she provided detailed, specific answers the members liked — downplaying the role of charter schools, saying that they should provide ideas that could be applied to public schools, saying she supported collective bargaining, and saying that she thinks standardized tests have been overused.

But what clinched it for members was Clinton's lifelong devotion to education, said Lily Eskelsen García, the NEA president.

"This was not just something where she said here’s a nice thing to do or a good thing to do," she said. "We looked at her commitment to our most vulnerable children."

Clinton, along with other Democratic candidates, skipped an Iowa forum last week hosted by prominent education reformer Campbell Brown. Brown argued that the candidates skipped at the behest of teachers unions, something the unions wouldn't comment on one way or another, except to criticize Brown's approach to education.

Education reformers, meanwhile, still remain optimistic for a Clinton administration, citing the same evidence as unions: her lifelong commitment to education.

Democrats for Education Reform, a group that promotes policies like those Duncan has pursued, said Clinton's record makes her a "reformer since 1983."

'We’re optimistic that Secretary Clinton will act in ways that have been consistent for support for choice for parents, and for high standards and benchmarks for our children," said Shavar Jeffries, the group's president, citing Clinton's support for charter schools and for higher academic standards during her husband's presidency.

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