Arne Duncan, Social Entrepreneur, Led U.S. Dept. of Education on Long Detour

Even though Arne Duncan has left Washington and John King now heads up the U.S. Department of Education, I have continued to puzzle about exactly what went haywire on a deep level during the seven years of Duncan’s tenure. When I learned last week that Duncan has taken a new job—opening a Chicago office for the Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’ philanthropy—and that Duncan will, according to Emma Brown of the Washington Post, be supporting “entrepreneurs who can provide jobs in neglected neighborhoods and… (creating and expanding) training programs that equip young people with skills they need to get those jobs,” I began to think about Duncan in the context of social entrepreneurship.

I know the idea of social entrepreneurship is trendy right now, but because I was unable precisely to define it for myself, I went to the library and checked out David Bornstein’s book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.  After all, a blurb on the cover from a NY Times review says it is “A bible in the field.”  Social entrepreneurship is best known in a global sense—the Grameen Bank and all those NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are registered with the United Nations.  Bornstein writes, “Historically, these organizations have been defined in the negative—as nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations.  Today they are understood to comprise a new ‘sector,’ variously dubbed the ‘independent sector,’ ‘nonprofit sector,’ ‘third sector,’ or, the term favored in this book, the ‘citizen sector.’ (pp 4-5)

Bornstein explains that social entrepreneurs bring characteristics of business and competition into the way “the ‘noncommercial’ or ‘social’ business of society is structured. Around the world, this work has been dominated by centralized decision making and top-down, usually governmental, institutions. It has been managed a little like a planned economy.”  But, continues Bornstein, governments are often not ideal: “As in business, advancing new ideas and creating new models to attack problems require an entrepreneur’s single-minded vision and fierce determination, and lots of energy and time.  It is the kind of work that flourishes to the extent that society successfully harnesses and nurtures the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens… One of the essential differences between a planned and a market economy is the role of competition.  In the past, citizen sector organizations have been insulated from the forces of head-to-head competition.  However, as the sector continues to attract talent, competition is likely to intensify—particularly as social entrepreneurs seek to ‘capture’ the benefits of their innovations and as funders, journalists, and citizens come to demand better performance.”(p. 276)

Finally, Bornstein adds, “Historically, religious organizations and wealthy patrons were responsible for the delivery of social goods.  However, the rapid economic growth of the past two centuries allowed governments to tax private wealth to finance public goods—canals, schools, mental institutions, rural electrification, and the like.  With the rise of the welfare state in the twentieth century, the fulfillment of social needs came to be seen not only as the government’s responsibility, but one of its primary operational functions.  Government, however, remained insulated from the pressures and incentives that forced businesses to continually improve their products.” (p. 274)

We can see that, as Bornstein defines it, social entrepreneurship imports the values of business into what he calls the social sector.  He castigates government as top-down and abjures centralized decision making and the engine of a planned economy.  A society of social entrepreneurs will harness the wide-ranging talents and fierce determination of millions of citizens, create new models, inspire new ideas, vision and innovation, and hone it all through competition.

Because, as Bornstein reminds us, historically, religious organizations took care of many social needs (including education, the area with which Arne Duncan was most involved as U.S. Secretary of Education), let’s consider a respected religious leader’s understanding of the roles of charity and government for providing such services—the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin of New York’s Riverside Church: “Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable. Charity, yes always; but never as a substitute for justice.” (Credo, p. 56)

While Bornstein emphasizes the very American value of the power of the individual, government is the ultimate institutional expression of the collective in a democratic society and the essential institution for protecting the rights of citizens.  As the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan presided over a federal department historically designed to distribute Title I funds for supplying at least a measure of equity in our nation’s poorest schools, to regulate and fund services for children with special needs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to provide support for the nation’s school teachers through Title II, to oversee the protection of students’ civil rights, and a host of other functions.  Yet Duncan’s primary contribution was spawning a massive experiment in social entrepreneurship.  One example was the rapid expansion of charter schools launched by social entrepreneurs.  A serious problem with charters as a solution to America’s primary education challenges is the enormous mismatch in scale. Public schools in the United States serve 50 million children and adolescents, but, according to the National Charter School Resource Center, “As of the start of the 2015-16 school year, there are 6,723 charter schools in the United States.”

And what about diverting millions of dollars to Teach for America, a relatively small experiment in social entrepreneurship? Teach for America is supplying  8,800 active teachers in schools across 35 states this year, compared to 3.5 million teachers serving the nation’s public schools. According to a recent post by Diane Ravitch, “The U.S. Department of Education… (gave) Teach for America hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants since 2008.  Government funding comprised 38% of TFA’s budget in 2015, totaling $69.7 million that year alone….”   What if that money had been spent on a new federal program to provide incentives to attract the most experienced teachers to work in the public schools of cities like Gary and Flint?  What if the money had been spent instead on reducing class size by hiring additional public school teachers in Newark and Oakland?  In his book on social entrepreneurship, Bornstein describes the goal of harnessing and nurturing the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens.  How better to do this in the United States than by supporting the efforts of our nation’s 3.5 million credentialed public school teachers?

What about government’s regulatory function?  Only government has the capacity to protect the investment of taxpayers.  And surely the federal government is responsible for ensuring that public schools and the specific programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education serve the needs and protect the rights of the nation’s children.  Here are just two examples of the regulatory failure that was a hallmark of Duncan’s Department of Education.

  • In June of 2015,  the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools cited a 2012 audit by the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG)  that “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.  The OIG’s 2012 audit discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.”  The Alliance’s report explains that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement did not maintain records of the charter schools funded through grants to states and lacked internal controls and adequate training in fiscal and program monitoring.
  • In the fall of 2015, the federal Charter Schools Program awarded a grant of $71 million to Ohio to expand charter schools. The grant was put on hold only after Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and newspapers across the state demanded that the U.S. Department of Education insist that Ohio do a better job of regulating its charter schools before the U.S. Department of Education spends millions of dollars expanding what has been a mismanaged and unregulated program.

What about the Department’s failure to invest in expanding the essential, but chronically underfunded, public school programs that are the very reason for the existence of the U.S. Department of Education—Duncan’s failure to run government itself with vision? Under Arne Duncan, funds were diverted from the Title I formula to the competitive Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant programs.  While Title I awards funds by formula for educational enrichment in schools that serve a large number and high concentration of very poor children, Duncan’s competitive grant programs diverted money to states with winning grant proposals, reducing funds available to schools serving poor children in states that lost the competition. And too often, because one-time grants cannot be used to hire long-term teachers, the funds were spent on consultants.

It is surely a very good thing for Arne Duncan to take a job as a social entrepreneur with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective. Emma Brown reports that he “hopes that creating new pathways to jobs will help stem the violence that has wracked Chicago, especially its impoverished neighborhoods on the West and South sides.”  He is reported to have told the Washington Post, “The thesis is, if we can help young men and women get real skills that will lead to real jobs and pay them to gain those skills, then you give them a reason to not sell drugs and not get caught in the violence.”  I wish him well in this endeavor as he returns to Chicago.

The problem is that during his stint as U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan thought about policy as though he were a social entrepreneur instead of using the power at his disposal to ensure that government could fulfill its most basic obligations. There is a role in our society for social entrepreneurs.  There is also a desperate need for well functioning government.  In Fire in the Ashes, a retrospective book about his years’ writing about children and schools, Jonathan Kozol affirms the need for charity at the same time he distinguishes the purpose of charity from the role of government: “Charity has never been a substitute, not in any amplitude, for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education… The public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give every child the feast of learning…. Charity and chance… are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” (p. 304)

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2 thoughts on “Arne Duncan, Social Entrepreneur, Led U.S. Dept. of Education on Long Detour

  1. Wonderful analysis. I fear there is a generation now that buys that government is the problem. They don’t come close to understanding the concept of the common good. Susie

  2. There appears to be a tenuous but never the less interesting confluence of ideas between the research and info in Mayer’s book on “Dark Money” (Dark Money, The Hidden Mystery of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer) and the kind of libertarian overtones embedded in Bornstein’s descriptions of social entrepreneurship. Quick research on Bornstein doesn’t seem to indicate that this is an intentional promotion; however, I’m leaning ever more towards cynicism when I see such connections (perhaps it’s my cynicism that sees such connection?).

    Additionally, embedded in a recent blog by Will Richardson (https://medium.com/modern-learning/we-re-trying-to-do-the-wrong-thing-right-in-schools-210ce8f85d35#.ag2anyksj)
    on the differences between doing the “wrong things” right and doing the “right things” is a clip of an interview with Russell Ackoff on the topic. It seems to provide an overarching theme for much of what you’ve been covering.
    Thank you

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