Education Secretary Arne Duncan grew up in Chicago and attended the private, prestigious University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. The pre-K-12 Lab Schools are progressive institutions that, according to its Web site, “ignite and nurture an enduring spirit of scholarship, curiosity, creativity, and confidence” and “value learning experientially, exhibiting kindness, and honoring diversity.”
The teachers there are unionized and respected by administrators. President Obama’s two daughters attended the school before moving to Washington in 2009, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s children are enrolled there now. And in the fall, Duncan’s children will be attending Lab, too, while his wife works there.
Duncan’s wife, Karen, and his two children, Claire and Ryan, recently moved back to Chicago, eager to restart life in the city where they lived before then President-elect Barack Obama asked his old friend in 2008 to run the U.S. Education Department. Before that, Duncan had served as the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools from 2001 through December 2008 and instituted reforms — including closing schools, performance pay for teachers, and charter schools — that never resulted in the significant system turnaround he began demanding of other systems as education secretary.
Duncan will remain in Washington D.C., serving out the Obama administration’s second term before rejoining his family in Chicago. The move has been in the works for some time; Karen Duncan was seen at the Lab Schools in late January with her two children (who “shadowed” other students through a school day, which is commonly done by students preparing to attend a particular school).
Dorie Nolt, Duncan’s press secretary, said in an e-mail:
After more than six years living just outside Washington, D.C., Secretary Duncan’s family moved back to Chicago recently. His wife, Karen, is ready to resume her full-time career in education and will work at her former employer, the University of Chicago Laboratory School, where their children will attend school. Secretary Duncan will continue to work and maintain a residence in D.C. but commute to spend weekends with his family, as many cabinet Secretaries have done. Secretary Duncan remains committed to his work in the Cabinet and will continue to serve at the pleasure of the President.
Since 2009, the Duncan family had lived in Virginia, where the two children attended public schools in Arlington. In an April 2015 interview with Fatherly.com, Duncan was asked what he has learned about the U.S. public education system from being a father as opposed to being education secretary, and he said:
“The only hard part is fitting into those little chairs with the desks. That can be tough. My children have been to schools in both Chicago and Arlington, Virginia. First and foremost, I’m a dad – that’s the most important thing in my life by far. And I’m extraordinarily thankful that my children are able to go to wonderful public schools with great principals and teachers who are really committed. My wife and I have been really pleased with the quality of the education our children have received and we just try to do what we can to be good partners to their teachers.”
But now his children will attend a progressive private school in Chicago, a school that does not follow key school reform policies that his Education Department has set for public schools.
It does not, for example, use the Common Core State Standards (though many teachers there support them). It does not bombard its students with standardized tests or spend weeks each semester in test-prep mode. It does not evaluate teachers by student standardized test scores. In 2013, 20 Lab teachers signed a letter to Duncan protesting his policies that promote standardized test-based school reform. Also among the signatories were teachers from the Ariel Community Academy, a public school founded by a team of people that included Duncan.
Why are the Duncans sending their children to this private school?
Duncan’s wife, Karen, used to work at Lab and has rejoined the staff in the middle school admissions department. Nolt attributed the following quote to Duncan: “Given my not living in Chicago, we’re trying to keep things as simple as possible.”
There is not a single thing unreasonable about Duncan wanting his children to go to a school that is logistically easy for his family. Who would begrudge any parents who want to send their children to a good school that is easy for them to reach? And who would begrudge parents who want their children to attend the same school for simple logistic reasons? Nobody I know.
But there are ironies to note here.
While Duncan is interested in making his own family’s logistics easy, the very public charter schools that Duncan and his department have supported and pushed for expansion have hastened the closure of many neighborhood public schools, making it more difficult for many families — especially single-parent families — to get their children to schools that are nowhere near their homes. Charter schools have been permitted to open wherever the founders want with no consideration for what cities need to serve all of their students. Charter schools can limit the number of students who attend; traditional public schools can’t. As a result, in urban areas where neighborhood schools have been closed, parents must apply to charter schools and hope to get into one that is near them. It doesn’t always happen.
The forced closing of failing schools also has led to a demise of neighborhood schools in some areas. When Duncan ran Chicago’s public schools, he closed dozens of schools, and he pledged to close or revamp thousands when he became education secretary. When Obama named Duncan to run the Education Department in 2008, Obama praised Duncan’s record of closing and reopening schools in Chicago — as if it was a strategy that enjoyed great success. In fact, it hasn’t. In 2013, when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (who has had Duncan’s support) ordered 50 public schools closed, schools that Duncan closed and revamped were either closed or revamped again.
Another irony is that Duncan will be sending his children to a private school in a city where he ran the public schools for seven years; he then went on to control federal oversight of the nation’s public schools for another seven years. One wonders if there is not a single public school — or public charter school — that Duncan could have chosen after being personally responsible in some way for the improvement of the public education system in Chicago.
Duncan talks a lot about giving parents school choices for their children, and, again, nobody should begrudge his own choices. But they do speak to a pattern among public policy-makers and influential philanthropists who push specific school reforms — such as charter schools, the elimination of teacher tenure, Common Core, and evaluation of teachers by test scores — yet send their own children to private schools that do none of these things. Bill Gates, for example, who funded the creation of the Common Core, sent his children to private school.
President Obama’s daughters go to private Sidwell Friends in the District, where officials have said they don’t tie teacher pay to standardized test scores because they don’t think those scores are reliable indicators of teacher effectiveness. On one level, it makes sense for security reasons. On another level, it remains true that these powerful people are removed from the experiences and frustrations of parents who live with the consequences of the policies they set.
An education policy that makes some degree of sense on paper could be entirely unworkable, and the only way policy-makers can know is if they listen to teachers, principals, students and parents. The recent rebellion around the country among parents and teachers against high-stakes testing is testament to the fact that Duncan wasn’t listening nearly enough.
In his final 1 1/2 years as education secretary, with his family in Chicago and he in Washington D.C., perhaps he will. Unfortunately, with his children in a private school, he will be one step further away from the consequences of his own policies.
(Correction: Earlier version misspelled Dorie Nolt’s name in one reference. It is now fixed.)