Former Sec. of Education Arne Duncan on his hometown Chicago return

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CHICAGO – After spending seven years running Chicago’s public schools, then heading to Washington to become the U.S. Secretary of Education for another seven years, Arne Duncan sits down to talk exclusively to WGN about everything from working for the president, to the sad state of the Chicago Public Schools.

At 51, Arne Duncan is contemplating his next step professionally.

While he says he has no idea what it might be, he does know it will keep him and his family in Chicago.

His family the reason he decided to come home after years on the road representing his old friend and boss, President Obama.

He calls it “the experience of a lifetime.”

“There were honestly a number of days where you pinch yourself. What’s a kid from the South Side of Chicago doing here?” asks the humble, Harvard-educated Arne Duncan, amazed at his good fortune when he was called up by his dear friend Barack Obama in 2009.

He was being asked to leave Chicago’s Public Schools and run the Department of Education for another Harvard grad who hails from the South Side. He said it was a no brainer.

“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and a one sentence conversation with my wife — How can we not do this?” he recalled.

As part of the President’s cabinet, Duncan travelled all 50 states. He saw the good the bad as it related to education. He said he took the post and left for Washington with a healthy amount of skepticism about what could be accomplished on a federal level. He came home 7 years later proud of his successes, such as:

  • Putting a billion dollars behind early childhood education
  • Getting high school graduation rates to an all-time high
  • Watching high school dropout rates decline.

But with the successes, there are some regrets.

“U.S. ranks like 25th in providing access to early learning opportunities which is crazy for the wealthiest nation on earth,” he says.

He wanted to see college aid for undocumented students.

The ever-present gun violence affecting students all over the country still stings when he thinks about tragedies like Sandy Hook.

“We got zero breakthrough in gun legislation to keep our kids safer,” he said.

16,000 students died in his first 6 years on the job – a staggering statistic.

The single greatest topic that haunts him and motivates him as he returns to a city with 51 homicides in the month of January alone–the greatest for the month in over 15 years.

On Dec 30th, Duncan chose Chicago to make his farewell speech.

St. Sabina church was his backdrop. Despite his early exit from the Obama administration, that day he addressed the unfinished business of his office.

“The level of despair and hopelessness that so many kids have. If you have hope, if you think you have a future, you don’t pick up that gun,” said Duncan.

He says watching Chicago unravel over the years with contentious teacher union contracts, police-involved shootings, and financial disrepair makes this a very hard time for the city. One of his CPS successors Barbara Byrd Bennett could be headed to jail and Karen Lewis is fueling up for another CTU contract fight.

All of it he says is unsettling. He blames the adults involved.

“CPS is teetering  on the brink of catastrophe, and I don’t say that lightly. It could get much much worse, unimaginably worse in the not too distant future,” he says.

It was a lot of hard work over the past 7 years. But Duncan says he would do it all over again. Especially when it comes to taking on the boss, Obama, on the basketball court.

The former Education Secretary is still trying to figure out what he wants to do when he grows up, running for office, not likely.

He said he likes kids and policy – not politics.

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