WASHINGTON — Arne Duncan, who followed President Barack Obama to Washington to serve as his education secretary, announced Friday he will step down following a seven-year tenure marked by a willingness to plunge head-on into the heated debate about the government's role in education.
Sidestepping a confirmation fight in Congress, Obama tapped a senior bureaucrat to run the department while leaving the role of secretary vacant for the remainder of his presidency.
Today a close friend of the president's, Duncan has been one of the longest-serving members in Obama's administration. After his departure in December, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be the sole member of Obama's Cabinet still in his original role. Duncan said he planned to return to Chicago, where his family is living, with his future plans uncertain.
"Being apart from my family has become too much of a strain, and it is time for me to step aside and give a new leader a chance," Duncan said in an email to staff obtained by The Associated Press.
In an unconventional move, Obama asked John King Jr., a senior Education Department official, to oversee the Education Department, but declined to nominate him to be secretary, which would require confirmation by the Republican-run Senate. Elevating King in an acting capacity spares Obama a potential clash with Senate Republicans over his education policies as his term draws to a close.
"We do not intend to nominate another candidate," said a White House official who wasn't authorized to comment by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. Republicans pointed out that Obama has previously complained that acting secretaries cannot fulfill all the duties of Senate-confirmed agency heads.
Duncan came to Washington from Chicago, where he ran the city's public school system. As part of the Chicago cohort that followed Obama to Washington, Duncan is one of few Cabinet members who has a personal relationship with the president. A basketball player at Harvard University who played professionally in Australia, Duncan was once a regular in Obama's weekend basketball games.
Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who frequently clashed with Duncan as chairman of the Senate's education panel, praised Duncan as "one of the president's best appointments." Although he praised Duncan for promoting children's welfare, he alluded to deep disagreement over many of Duncan's initiatives.
"When we disagree, it is usually because he believes the path to effective teaching, higher standards, and real accountability is through Washington, D.C., and I believe it should be in the hands of states, communities, parents and classroom teachers," said Alexander, who served as education secretary under George H.W. Bush.
During his time as secretary, Duncan prioritized K-12 education and made his first initiative the administration's signature the Race to the Top program, in which states competed for federal grants. The program was the first of several Duncan initiatives that became embroiled in the fight over federal involvement in education. Critics blasted the department for linking federal money to the Common Core, a controversial set of curriculum guidelines that has become a symbol to some critics of federal overreach.
Duncan showed impatience with criticism of the program and the standards. In 2014, he cast critics as "white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were, and that's pretty scary." Duncan later said he regretted the "clumsy phrasing."
In his previous role at the Education Department, King oversaw preschool through high school education and managed the department's operations, holding the peculiar title of delegated deputy secretary. He served earlier as state education commissioner in New York, running the state's public schools and expansive system of state colleges and universities.
"John comes to this role with a record of exceptional accomplishment as a lifelong educator — a teacher, a school leader, and a leader of school systems," Duncan said.