The WSJ's Editorial Board Celebrates Arne Duncan's Resignation By Promoting Anti-Public Education Myths

An October 5 editorial by the Wall Street Journal used anti-union rhetoric and pro-privatization arguments to celebrate Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's resignation and replacement by Acting Deputy Education Secretary John King. The editorial perpetuated several well-worn education policy myths, and mischaracterized the economic outcomes of for-profit colleges and the effects of voucher programs for low-income students of color. 

The Wall Street Journal Claims An Anti-Union Mindset Is Essential For Strong Education Leadership

WSJ Editorial Board: John King's Unpopularity With Unions Makes Him A “Fine Choice.” The Journal's editorial board called President Obama's decision to replace outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with his acting deputy, John King, “a fine choice,” declaring that King's unpopularity with unions “ought to be a requirement for any education leadership position”:

President Obama made a fine choice on Friday in John King, a charter school advocate, to be his next Secretary of Education. ... Mr. King has been a senior adviser to Mr. Duncan since last year and before that was state education commissioner in New York, where he pushed for higher standards. This made him unpopular with unions, which these days ought to be a requirement for any education leadership position. [Wall Street Journal, 10/5/15]

WSJ: Duncan's Success Was “Overshadowed” By “Unwillingness To Fully Take On” Unions. The Journal editorial approvingly cited several highlights of Duncan's legacy, including his efforts to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores and the promotion of charter schools. But said those accomplishments will be forgotten because Duncan did not do enough to challenge “the union-backed status quo”:

Mr. Duncan did well to promote charter schools and high standards. His Race to the Top initiative used federal dollars to catalyze reform in the states, especially by encouraging them to hold teachers accountable for student performance.

Yet such progress was overshadowed by his unwillingness to fully take on the union-backed status quo. When Democrats in Congress killed a scholarship program that gave poor kids in the nation's capital a shot at a decent school, Mr. Duncan remained on the sidelines. He was also mute when the Justice Department sued Louisiana because its voucher program helped poor minority kids by letting them attend schools that didn't have enough whites. [Wall Street Journal, 10/5/15]

But The Union-Opposed Programs The WSJ Wanted Duncan To Defend Were Low-Quality

Wash. Post: D.C. Voucher Program Led To Federal Spending With “No Public Oversight.” The D.C. scholarship program mentioned by the Wall Street Journal editorial board was: the first federally funded-voucher program in the nation; implemented in the District of Columbia in 2004 by a Republican-led Congress; and the source of ongoing funding battles between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans. Several reports on the program during its decade-long existence revealed that it consistently lacked oversight and resulted in federal spending on private programs that were sometimes unaccredited or “unsuitable learning environments.” In 2012, the Washington Post reported:

But a Washington Post review found that hundreds of students use their voucher dollars to attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings, such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted Deanwood residence, and a school built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist. [Washington Post, 11/17/12]

Wash. Post: D.C. Private Schools Receive Millions Of Dollars But "Are Subject To Few Quality Controls.'' In another article on the D.C. voucher program by the Washington Post in 2013, the paper outlined how millions of federal dollars were being spent but there was little oversight of the program:

At a time when public schools face increasing demands for accountability and transparency, the 52 D.C. private schools that receive millions of federal voucher dollars are subject to few quality controls and offer widely disparate experiences, the Post found.

Some of these schools are heavily dependent on tax dollars, with more than 90 percent of their students paying with federal vouchers.

Yet the government has no say over curriculum, quality or management. And parents trying to select a school have little independent information, relying mostly on marketing from the schools. [Washington Post, 11/15/13]

The WSJ Praised A Voucher Program In Louisiana That Violated Desegregation Orders

Department Of Justice And Federal Court Agreed That Louisiana Voucher Program Violated Desegregation Orders. In 2012, the federal district court of Louisiana found -- and the U.S. Department of Justice upheld the following year -- that a Louisiana school voucher program mentioned in the WSJ editorial had violated desegregation agreements in the state's public schools. The program was declared noncompliant with a long-standing court order mandated under the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, which called for public school desegregation and led to integration orders for select school districts throughout the country. [Media Matters For America, 8/30/13]

UCLA: School Segregation Is One Of The Leading Factors In Educational Inequality. The Journal has defended the Louisiana voucher program before, in 2013, despite evidence that segregated schools have a negative impact on student learning. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California found that in the 60 years since Brown, segregated education by income and race continues to underserve students of color. The report also reaffirmed the positive educational implications of desegregation for all students (emphasis added):

[D]esegregation properly implemented can make a very real contribution to equalizing educational opportunities and preparing young Americans for the extremely diverse society in which they will live and work and govern together. It is the only major tool our society has for this goal.

It is good to celebrate Brown by revisiting historic sites and remembering the many struggles that led to the decision and the changes in the South. It was a major accomplishment of which we should rightfully be proud. But a real celebration should also involve thinking seriously about why the country has turned away from the goal of Brown and accepted deepening polarization and inequality in our schools. [University of California, May 2014]

ProPublica Investigative Report: Widespread School Resegregation Is Connected To The Achievement Gap. A 2014 investigative report from ProPublica highlighted the resegregation of public schools previously under desegregation orders like those in the Louisiana case. The report noted (emphasis added):

Schools in the South, once the most segregated in the country, had by the 1970s become the most integrated, largely as a result of federal court orders. But since 2000, judges have released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from court-enforced integration, and many of these districts have followed the same path as Tuscaloosa's--back toward segregation. Black children across the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. Nationally, the achievement gap between black and white students, which greatly narrowed during the era in which schools grew more integrated, widened as they became less so. [ProPublica, 4/16/14]

The WSJ Says Arne Duncan Should Not Have Limited For-Profit Education

WSJ: Duncan's “Worst Legacy” Includes Federal Direct Loans, Greater Student And Borrower Protections From Private Lenders And Schools. The Journal editorial argued that Duncan's education reform legacy is outweighed by his efforts to lessen the role of private actors in higher education, such as for-profit schools and private lenders. It also falsely claimed that the Obama administration's “gainful employment” rule unjustly targets for-profit colleges that serve minority and low-income students (emphasis added):

Mr. Duncan's worst legacy is the Administration's assault on for-profit higher education. He promoted the takeover of most student loans, piling up a trillion dollars in new federal liabilities. And his department, at White House insistence, has driven a “gainful employment” rule that targets for-profit schools whose graduates don't meet the arbitrary debt-to-earnings level the Education Department thinks they should have. The rule doesn't apply to the nonprofits and community colleges that often do even worse by employment, confirming a glaring double standard.

Some of Mr. Duncan's admirers say he was merely going along with an agenda driven by the White House and Capitol Hill liberals, but the result has hurt minority and lower-income adults who benefit from the flexible schedules and job-focused skills that for-profits can provide. [Wall Street Journal, 10/5/15]

But Duncan's Measures Aimed To Protect Students Of Color Who Have Unmanageable School Debt

U.S. News & World Report: Student Protection Rule Applies To More Than For-Profit Schools. U.S. News & World Report contributor and student loan expert Betsy Mayotte explained that the Obama administration's new “gainful employment” rule targets primarily nondegree programs at all types of schools that saddle students with unmanageable debt. The rule specifies that graduates of these types of programs who have debt must consistently report adequate employment, or the programs and affiliated schools could face a loss of federal funding, noting:

Gainful employment rules apply to most programs, certificates and degrees at for-profit institutions and most nondegree and certificate programs at all other schools. Only schools or programs that participate in the federal financial aid programs fall under the rule. [U.S. News & World Report, 7/8/15]

Brookings: For-Profit Schools Account For “Most” Of The Rising Loan Defaults. In a recent report from Brookings Institution, Treasury Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Adam Looney and researcher Constantine Yannelis concluded that the recent pattern of rising student loan defaults can be largely attributed to for-profit and non-selective institutions:

Most of the increase in default is associated with the rise in the number of borrowers at for-profit schools and, to a lesser extent, 2-year institutions and certain other non-selective institutions, whose students historically composed only a small share of borrowers. These non-traditional borrowers were drawn from lower income families, attended institutions with relatively weak educational outcomes, and experience poor labor market outcomes after leaving school. [Brookings Institution, 9/10/15]

Mother Jones: For-Profit Schools Serve An Under-Prepared Population, But Many Do Not Succeed In Making Up The Difference. Mother Jones reporter Julia Laurie noted in her coverage of the Brookings Institution study's findings that for-profit schools have expanded significantly in recent years but many leave graduates unprepared for the job market (emphasis added):

As Mother Jones has reported in the past, compared with four-year college graduates, nontraditional borrowers are poorer, older, likely to drop out, and, if they do graduate, unlikely to face bright career prospects. The median for-profit university grad owes about $10,000 in federal loans but makes only about $21,000 per year.


So what happened? During the recession, students poured into colleges to make themselves more marketable in a crummy economy. Community colleges, depleted from plunging state tax revenues, couldn't expand to account for this exodus from the job market, so many students--and their loans--ended up at the quickly expanding for-profit universities, which promise short courses in tangible skills.

But students graduating from these colleges have notoriously dim job opportunities--some of the colleges have shut down in recent years after Department of Education probes found them to target low-income students and misrepresent the likelihood of finding a job post-graduation. So with the subsequent influx of students back into the job market--and, for many of them, into low-wage work or unemployment--thousands are stuck with debt. [Mother Jones, 9/14/15]

Private Lending Programs Also Supported By The WSJ Have A Record Of Taking Advantage Of Borrowers And Taxpayers

New York Times: Private Lenders Overcharged The Federal Government For Years Through A Loophole. In 2004, The New York Times reported on the large-scale profits private lenders were making by taking advantage of a loophole in federal law to overcharge the government for federally-backed student loans. Private lending companies had been using the loophole to profit off taxpayer money for more than a decade at the time. [New York Times, 8/27/04]

U.S. Senate Report: Unregulated Private Lenders Engaged In Illegal Deals With Colleges To Court New Borrowers. A 2007 report for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee found that private lenders, subject to little regulation, had engaged in illegal marketing practices with colleges and admissions departments in several states to push new borrowers into the private lending market. That same year, then-New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo pursued legal action against several prominent private lending companies for engaging in these types of illegal activities, serving as a model for several other states to crack down on the same practices. [United States Senate, 6/14/07, New York Times, 4/24/07]

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: Private Student Loans Expose Borrowers To Greater Risk And Higher Costs. A 2012 report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau traced the rapid growth and loosening standards for private student lending in the early part of the 2000s, followed by an equally rapid decline as federal student loan regulations changed. The report concluded that private lenders' lenient standards led to widespread misinformation, exposing borrowers to greater risk. It also found that students at for-profit schools were significantly more likely to take out private loans, and that private borrowers generally had fewer protections and repayment options than federal borrowers. [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 8/29/12