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Duncan will step down as education secretary after seven years in post

President appoints John King as interim head of department

Arne Duncan (center) spoke at the White House, where President Obama praised  his work Friday. John King  (left) will replace  Duncan.
Arne Duncan (center) spoke at the White House, where President Obama praised his work Friday. John King (left) will replace Duncan. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Arne Duncan, who followed President Obama to Washington to serve as his education secretary, announced Friday that he will step down after a seven-year tenure marked by a willingness to plunge head-on into the heated debate about the government’s role in education.

Sidestepping a confirmation fight in Congress, Obama tapped John B. King Jr., a senior Education Department official and former cofounder of a charter school in Boston, to run the department while leaving the role of secretary vacant for the remainder of his presidency.

One of Obama’s longest-serving Cabinet members, Duncan is among the few to form a close personal relationship with the president. After his departure in December, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be the sole member of Obama’s Cabinet still in his original role.

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‘‘Arne’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anybody else,’’ Obama said, praising Duncan at the White House as one of the most consequential secretaries in the department’s history.

Duncan, who plans to return to Chicago to join his family, choked up as he reflected on his run in Washington and his roots as the child of Chicago teachers. ‘‘All our life we saw what kids could do when they were given a chance,’’ Duncan said.

In an unconventional move, Obama asked King to oversee the Education Department, but declined to nominate him to be secretary, which would require confirmation by the Republican-run Senate. Elevating King in an acting capacity spares Obama a potential clash with Senate Republicans over his education policies as his term draws to a close.

Duncan’s tenure coincided with a roiling debate on perceived federal overreach into schools that remains an issue as he leaves. Navigating a delicate divide, Duncan sought to use the US government’s leverage to entice states to follow Washington’s preferred approach to higher standards, prompting resistance from all sides.

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On the right, Republicans and state leaders accused Duncan of a heavy-handed federal approach that sidestepped lawmakers and enforced top-down policies on local schools.

Critics blasted the department for linking federal dollars to state adoption of standards such as the Common Core, a controversial set of curriculum guidelines.

His signature initiative was Race to the Top, in which states competed for US grants, with strings attached.

On the left, Duncan clashed about policy with teachers unions, including the largest, the Education Association — which once called on him to resign.