We’re leaving the South Side church after Arne Duncan’s last speech as U.S. Education Secretary, and my daughter remarks, “He’s not what I expected. He seemed so sincere. I thought he’d talk more like a politician.”
Arne has been “in politics” for more than 15 years, but he’s never been a politician—at least not in that slick and smarmy way most Americans instinctively mistrust—and he made it clear he won’t be any time soon. “I have never run for public office, and I have no plans to do so any time in the future,” he told a supportive crowd gathered in the St. Sabina Catholic Church.
That’s a blessing, because it means he can speak an unvarnished truth about the forces that destroy the lives of young people in the most devastated communities in his hometown. It means he doesn’t have to carry the baggage of being a politician and can get back to the business of saving young lives.
He’s education secretary, so of course he gave a plug to expanding preschool (the kumbaya of all education policy plays) and higher pay for teachers and counselors who work in the most challenging high-poverty schools. He touted higher graduation rates and a sharp drop in the number of dropouts, especially among black and Latino students and in our nation’s “dropout factory” high schools.
But he was there to talk about the ravages of gun violence.
About the 16,000 young people shot down nationwide during his first six years as Education Secretary, from 2009-2014.
About the disconnect between the public demand for gun control and a Congress paralyzed by its allegiance to the NRA.
About police officers who are too quick to fire their weapon when they see a black or brown face, or their colleagues who are more committed to the “code of silence” than telling the truth about injustice within their own ranks.
And more than anything, about children so devoid of hope and role models that they don’t see themselves living into adulthood—let alone attending college or earning an income in the legal economy.
“I have yet to hear of a gang that says it isn’t hiring,” he said to applause.
So Arne is back home—after serving seven years as President Obama’s longest serving cabinet member and one of the most influential education secretaries ever—and now he’s primed to launch a “New Deal” for young people at a precarious moment in Chicago’s future.
In education circles, the anti-reform forces love to cast Arne as the villain who demoralized a nation of teachers and traumatized students with his “test-and-punish” mandates.
But that narrative didn’t play in this crowd, where they know Arne as the school district leader who attended every funeral for every student killed during his tenure at Chicago Public Schools. That’s more than 100 funerals in eight years.
It doesn’t play with Christina Waters, who had just graduated from a Chicago high school when she was gravely wounded by a stray bullet to the head during a church picnic in 2009. She found a special ally in Arne, who kept in contact during her one-year recovery and urged her to pursue her college ambitions. “You are not a victim,” Arne told her. Now she’s a senior about to graduate college.
And it doesn’t play with Lawanda Crayton, who first met Arne 25 years ago when she was a hopeless sixth grader from a violent and abusive home and he was the math tutor who gave her a reason to believe in a brighter future and then spent the next few decades cheering her on.
If Arne was more of a politician, he’d trot out women like Christina and Lawanda as props for the feel-good photo op and then he’d promptly forget about them when the TV cameras turned away. But he didn’t, which is why he is trusted and embraced by those somber South Side moms holding the signs memorializing their slain children.
Let’s give that New Deal a chance. Let’s save some young lives. Game on, Arne.