Arne Duncan and Corruption at the Top

Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer

A recent New York Times article (March 23, 2010) — discreetly tucked in the back pages of the newspaper — reported that Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, kept a confidential log of names of the rich and powerful who were trying to take advantage of their political connections to get their children admitted into Chicago’s best schools when Duncan was Chief Executive of the school system there. On the list were local politicians and business people, including the state attorney general, the former White House social secretary (a personal friend of the Obama family), and an unnamed former United States senator. The Times based its information on an article in the Chicago Tribune.

We can all quietly speculate about the identity of the former United States Senator who was seeking special treatment for his children.

Peter Cunningham, Arne Duncan’s current spokesperson in the Department of Education, was questioned about Duncan’s activity in relation to the log.

The Times accordingly reported: “A spokesman for the Department of Education [Peter Cunningham] said Tuesday that the log was a record of those who asked for help, and that neither Mr. Duncan nor the aide who maintained the list, David Pickens, ever pressured principals to accept a child. Rather, he said, the creation of the list was an effort to reduce pressure on principals.”

The Times then directly quoted Cunningham as stating: “This was an attempt to buffer principals from all the outside pressure, to get our arms around something that was burdensome to them. It was always up to the principal to make the decision. Arne never ever picked up the phone.”

Given these statements, one might conclude that everything was in order and above-board.

Nevertheless, The Times also went on to observe: “The log noted ‘AD’ [Arne Duncan] as the person requesting help for 10 students, and as a co-requester about 40 times, according to The Tribune. Mr. Duncan’s mother and wife also appeared to have requested help for students.”

This apparent contradiction between Duncan’s spokesperson, Cunningham, saying that “Arne never ever picked up the phone [to lobby for particular children],” and the log indicating that Duncan had in fact acted on behalf of 10 students alone and 40 more “as a co-requester,” was explained by Cunningham in this way, where again The Times is quoting him directly: “The fact that his name might be next to some of these names doesn’t mean he was trying to get the kid in a school,” Mr. Cunningham said. “He was only asking after someone said, ‘Hi, Arne, is there any way to get into this school?’”

The Times was quick to add: “Mr. Cunningham said he did not believe principals would have felt any special pressure because Mr. Duncan was the source of the inquiry. ‘We were always very clear with them that it was up to the principal to make the decision,’ he said.”

In other words, on the one hand Cunningham is saying that Duncan “never ever” made a phone call to promote a child and that Duncan’s initials next to a name “doesn’t mean he was trying to get the kid in a school,” suggesting Duncan did nothing to promote the names on the log. On the other hand, and completely contradicting himself, Cunningham is saying that a principal would feel no pressure to admit a particular student “because Mr. Duncan was the source of the inquiry.” [italics added] But if Duncan did not resort to a phone call when he was the source of the inquiry, he evidently availed himself of other means of communication — perhaps a personal visit — to make these unsavory requests.

The Times article left unchallenged the absurd conjecture that a principal, whose career entirely hangs on remaining on good terms with Duncan, would not have felt under intense pressure to accede to Duncan’s subtle pressure tactics. Perhaps The New York Times writer felt under excruciating pressure to please his own boss by trying to make this account look remotely plausible. Evidently Peter Cunningham felt under enough pressure to provide his entirely incoherent narrative in order to please his boss.

While Duncan is evidently prepared to spend part of his days bending the rules for the rich and powerful, he seems to relish spending the rest of the day terrorizing public school teachers across the country, demanding that they strictly adhere to a whole array of standards, no matter how insidious these standards are in terms of undermining quality education, demoralizing teachers, and forcing students to devote themselves to a boring curriculum. But if the teachers do not comply, Duncan wants them fired. There is no mercy or rule-bending here.

The California Federation of Teachers is bravely mounting a defense of public education in response to Duncan’s and the Obama administration’s attacks. It recently passed a resolution that included the following clauses that highlight Obama’s free-market, profit-driven education plan:

Whereas, over the past year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has exploited the economic crisis to impose an unpopular, anti-union, anti-democratic, privatization scheme on our nation’s public school system; and

Whereas, this scheme has entailed scapegoating teachers, students and parents for all the social ills of our society that are reflected in the achievement gap between impoverished, predominantly minority, inner-city districts and primarily white, affluent districts; shredding decades of gains won by teachers’ unions; massive closures of public schools and redirection of school funds and facilities to benefit charter schools; and dictatorial “takeovers” of districts to suppress any community resistance to privatization; and

Whereas, if allowed to succeed, this drive to place our nation’s schools under the laws of “market-forces” will end public education as a right, and increase educational inequality based class;…

Therefore, be it resolved that the California Federation of Teachers endorse the April 10, 2010, March on Washington to Defend Public Education, fighting for the following demands:

  • Demand that Education Secretary Arne Duncan stop toying with our students’ lives.
  • End the “Race to the Top” scheme now.
  • Release all federal education funds to the states based on need
  • End the attacks against teachers, black, Latina/o and poor, working-class and middle-class students of all races
  • No privatization of public education
  • No more separate and unequal
  • Restore Dr. King’s vision for America….

This resolution, in conjunction with other resolutions by the same union that call for progressive taxation in order to increase revenue for education, points in exactly the right direction. It represents an effort to mobilize teachers to defend public education, their students, and their unions. It encourages teachers to rely on themselves, not hold out some desperate hope that those on top will come to their rescue. After all, those on top are perhaps too busy helping others on top by bending rules and dispensing special treatment.

About the Authors:

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at

About Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer

View all posts by Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer
Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at