Arne Duncan’s Wars

In this May 12, 2015 file photo, Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks in Arlington, Va. The Obama administration is taking steps to expand a student aid grant program _ so prisoners would be eligible. Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch have scheduled a visit to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, Md., Friday to announce the plans. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
In this May 12, 2015 file photo, Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

(Politico) – Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a mild-mannered, even-tempered, introverted kind of guy, but he’s spent much of his six and a half years in Washington in combat. He’s fought with school choice activists, student debt activists, gun activists, for-profit colleges, black colleges, traditional colleges, private lenders, loan collectors, the Tea Party, the Republican Party, and the teachers unions at the heart of the Democratic Party, among other interest groups. He’s in a multi-front war to fix America’s schools, and I recently sat down to delve into some of the wonkier details with Ted Mitchell, a former college president and education venture fund CEO who is now Duncan’s undersecretary. Mitchell spent a half hour patiently explaining to me the philosophy behind the Education Department’s fights—basically, making sure that all kids get a chance to succeed; that schools are accessible, accountable, and effective; and that adults who don’t do their part face consequences—until someone knocked on his door to say our time was up.

Then he started crying.

We had never met before, but Mitchell clearly had something personal he wanted to share, and my dull policy questions hadn’t given him much of an opening. His voice quivered as it finally spilled out: “I can’t let you leave without telling you what a privilege it has been to work with Arne.” He started to add something about fighting for students, but choked up mid-sentence. His press aide started crying, too. It sounds hokey, but I’ve never had an interview take such an abruptly emotional turn.


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