Obama Education Secretary: Boycott school until Congress takes action on guns

An unlikely face for a radical idea.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at an awards ceremony in 2016.  CREDIT: Larry French/Getty Images for Jefferson Awards Foundation
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at an awards ceremony in 2016. CREDIT: Larry French/Getty Images for Jefferson Awards Foundation

If elected leaders won’t tighten gun laws in response to school shootings, maybe it’s time for parents to go on strike by keeping their kids home indefinitely.

That’s the approach some high-ranking former Education Department officials are recommending after a mass-shooting in Texas claimed the lives of 10 people at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, last Friday, barely three months on from a similar mass murder at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

“Maybe it’s time for America’s 50 million school parents to simply pull their kids out of school until we have better gun laws,” former Assistant Secretary of Education Peter Cunningham tweeted on Friday as news of the Texas school-shooting broke. Later that same day, Cunningham’s old boss, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, gave the idea an immediate signal boost when he tweeted: “This is brilliant, and tragically necessary.”

“What if no children went to school until gun laws changed to keep them safe?” Duncan continued, “My family is all in if we can do this at scale. Parents, will you please join us?”

Duncan elaborated on the idea in television interviews over the weekend. “It’s a radical idea, it’s controversial, it’s intentionally provocative,” he told MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt on Sunday. “But you think about it, as we go back to school after Labor Day with the November elections just behind that, what if young people were to say, we’re not going back to school?”


A protracted boycott would build on tactics already employed by student activists in the weeks and months following the Parkland killings. Hundreds of thousands of students walked out of their schools to stage mass protests for tighter gun laws.

But while, the energy of those one-off walkouts could potentially be channeled into a national campaign, the tension that was generated by just the previous one-day walkouts illustrates how high the stakes might be for such a mass boycott. In those cases, some school administrators threatened students with suspensions or detention if they joined the walkouts. An indefinite version of the same intentional absence from classrooms would likely provoke a sterner backlash from officials — in part because some schools get funding based on their attendance figures.

Any political tactic predicated on kids staying home from school is also destined to collide with the realities of American economic and social inequality.

A child whose home life is unpleasant or unsafe might not be in a position to benefit from joining a strike, and parents who work low-wage jobs are often in no position to handle the time, logistical, and financial costs of keeping their kids home from school. If the kind of boycott Duncan envisions came about without someone ponying up significant resources for some kind of “strike fund” to pay truancy fines and buy the meals low-income families count on their kids getting in the cafeteria, access to the campaign would be far from equal. That might seem a piddling concern in the grand scheme of things, but truancy laws are so stringent that missed school days can lead to ugly tragedies like the jailhouse death of 55-year-old Eileen DeNino in 2014.

Whatever the practical challenges, a coordinated boycott campaign would be conceptually aligned with the gun law activism that’s come out of this year’s high-profile school shootings. Populist organizing that leapfrogs traditional political elites, leaving political parties and Beltway think tanks in a mad scramble to catch up with self-directed teenagers, has become the new normal since Parkland.


This isn’t the first time Duncan’s career in education work has intersected with a call to keep kids at home as a means of protesting insufficient action on school violence. In 2009, the issue arose in Chicago, Illinois after an honors student was beaten to death while walking home from his school. Shocking videos of Derrion Albert’s death made national headlines less than a year after Duncan had left his role as head of Chicago Public Schools to run the federal Department of Education — and some observers connected the endemic violence between students at Albert’s school to Duncan’s policy of closing and consolidating schools that were deemed to be underperforming.

“You have a trail of blood and tears ever since they launched [the program],” local anti-violence organizer Tio Hardiman told the local NBC affiliate at the time. “There’s a history of violence associated with moving kids from one area to another.”

A group of parents planned to boycott the school Albert had attended in the months after his death. At least one, Leatrice Jackson, actually did keep her son out of school for weeks while fighting to get him reassigned to a new school where she could feel confident in his safety.

These parents were taking a risk, as would any parent that might heed the boycott call today. But the risks of truancy-as-protest were especially stark under the neoliberal schooling reforms Duncan helped install in Chicago. The primacy of test scores and the prevalence of school closures as a management tactic created an incentive for school administrators to kick kids who tested poorly off of their rolls in whatever way they could — and truancy records are one of the easiest ways to justify such a move, as Paul Street noted in a 2008 article on the racial dynamics of Duncan’s policies.

Today, Duncan’s personal sympathy for the idea that parents might seek to pressure policymakers through school boycotts is obvious. Such a campaign, taken up to a national scale and explicitly pegged to mass shootings that have riveted the nation, might find greater traction than it did when a handful of minority families tried to exercise the same radical politics in Chicago.