Chances are that Arne Duncan doesn’t mind appearances at the NBA All-Star Weekend and getting shout-outs from celebrities such as LeBron James. But the U.S. Secretary of Education faces some daunting challenges over the next two years in keeping President Barack Obama’s school reform agenda. He must make headway in spite of such hotspots as the sparring in Congress and among education players over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, and questions about getting new funding for such initiatives as Race to the Top and I3. Then there’s that pesky debate over abolishing collective bargaining that puts centrist Democrats such as Duncan on the hot seat just as their own initiatives would also weaken the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. All as the President is gearing up for a re-election campaign that will require all activist hands on deck, including two of the biggest players in Democratic party politics.
In this interview Duncan held with Dropout Nation and other media and policy players this morning, he discussed the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to help states realize that there is flexibility in Title 1 funding and offered thoughts on Wisconsin and other major education issues. (Michelle McNeil of EdWeek has a roundup of the pow-wow.) More from the session, including about standardized testing and No Child — including comments from Carmel Martin, Duncan’s point-person on reauthorization– will be forthcoming this evening.
You have been critical of efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere to abolish collective bargaining. How does efforts to abolish collective bargaining go against fostering collaboration?
You need budget concessions on wages and benefits [in Wisconsin]. As you know, the [NEA's Wisconsin affiliate] said they would make them… You have a union that is making moves toward the kinds of reforms we want. The president of the union even had push-back internally…You had a union that had been historically more intransigent, but was moving. You don’t want to hit them with a hammer… I think collective bargaining can and will be a tool for improving student achievement.
But isn’t ending collective bargaining critical to forcing the NEA, the AFT and their respective presidents, Dennis Van Roekel and Randi Weingarten to actually make concessions and embrace reform? Especially given the presence of Baby Boomers who want those benefits.
The leadership is changing. We have to get there faster. But you see union leaders such as Randi saying it should be easier to dismiss teachers, you’ve never heard that. You are hearing things that you’ve never heard before.
If you talk to good young teachers, they aren’t as interested in pensions. They want more pay. Give them a 401K plan and they will be happy. You have the Baby Boomers going into retirement. You have the new teachers who are coming in… I think [change] is happening.
But what about the reality that teachers unions have so many ways of advocating on their own behalf? In most school districts and even in states, there are few countering forces against unions, few ways for any sort of realistic collaboration.
Let’s have this conversation about parent engagement, countervailing pressures. We need that. We need the business community engaged.
No one’s talking about school boards. No one’s talking about superintendents. Everyone needs to move.
I’m not about collaboration for collaboration’s sake. Collaboration around the status quo, I’m not about that. I’m not about kumbaya. It’s about doing things to get better results for kids.”
So unions make concessions on teacher compensation and benefits right now? What if they push to roll things back when the fiscal conditions get better?
“Sometimes, when you cross the Rubicon on these issues, we crossed it… I think people are working in different ways. The countervailing pressure [against returning to the past] is that we need to get better results educationally. I think people are facing more pressure.
One of those pressures is fiscal. And in some cases, states are cutting funds for early childhood education initiatives. In your mind, is this smart cost-cutting?
I know these times are hard. But I don’t think that’s the smart way to cut. Kids are entering kindergarten without opportunity to succeed. If we want to close achievement gaps, we have to start at two and three, not four and five.
There’s the matter of class sizes, which is a particular concern for middle-class parents. Considering that fiscal belt-tightening inevitably will involve fewer teachers and increases class sizes, how can school districts reconcile this with parents?
Class size has been a sacred cow. We have to [put it on the table]. I have two kids. Given the choice between giving them a great teacher working with 28 kids or a mediocre teacher with 23, I’ll take the 28. Why not give the great teacher with 28 kids, $20,000, $25,000 more and give the rest [of the savings] to the district? Parents haven’t been given the choice. We need to have that conversation. Why don’t we have that conversation?
With some question about whether the No Child Left Behind Act will be reauthorized, there has been talk about providing school districts with waivers so they can avoid the penalties from the provision that all kids must be proficient in reading and math by 2014. What is the Department of Education’s roadmap on that?
Our focus is on getting it reauthorized… We are doing our job in passing that bill.
But what about the matter of getting congressional Republicans such as House Education and the Workforce Committee John Kline [who opposes No Child's accountability provisions] to move on reauthorization or even talk about what should be part of the reauthorized law?
No one’s saying ‘we won’t engage, we won’t talk’. Frankly the talks have been better than I expected.
Then there is Race to the Top, which will likely get less funding than in the past couple of years. For the states that competed for the program and didn’t get funding, are they really winners?
When you have 41 states adopting standards, they are winners… Forty-one states have reform plans. There are six districts in California that are working to implement these plans. We’re doing calls with these states and with funders so that they can implement those plans.
Few would have thought that John Kline would be just a month away from assuming the most-important education policymaking role in Congress — that of Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. California Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, who had been chairman of the committee before the Democrats took control of the federal lower house, was the one most-likely to be in position for reassuming the job. But thanks to President Barack Obama’s appointment of New York Republican John McHugh (and McKeon’s successful effort to replace him as Ranking Republican on the House Armed Forces Committee), Kline has gotten the opportunity to reshape the Republican agenda on education, reversing support for the GOP’s most-important stamp on education policy, the No Child Left Behind Act, and pursuing a local control-oriented platform.
Given that Kline’s own district is suburban and very much filled with folks opposed to No Child, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The implications of Kline’s possible (and likely) ascent is analyzed further in my latest column for The American Spectator.
Your editor got the opportunity to interview the presumptive Education and Labor Committee chairman, who was back in Minnesota campaigning for office. Whether or not one agrees with Kline’s positions (or with his underlying thinking), he gives some eloquent answers that both centrist Democrat and conservatives should consider.
What is the congressional Republican agenda on education?
The Republican position has been to abide some basic principles. There is a widespread opinion that No Child Left Behind is too broad. Another is parental choice. We want teachers to be able to teach without too much intrusion.
[No Child is] a very large intrusion into education, into areas of education that the federal government shouldn’t be involved. This isn’t just Republican dissatisfaction. When I talk to teachers, parents, superintendents, my colleagues, everyone wants to fix No Child Left behind. There is great dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind.
My staff has worked all summer long with our colleagues on the Democratic side. Unfortunately we have run out of time. That work is still very important because when we come back for the 112th Congress, we have to fix No Child Left Behind.
In your mind, what parts of No Child are particularly troublesome?
[Adequate Yearly Progress], where I’m from in Minnesota, that guarantees that every public school in America is failing. We have to go in and fix it. When you talk to superintendents, they say that they resent being told by the federal government that they are failing.
But hasn’t AYP actually done more to focus education on addressing the neglect of poor and minority kids by those superintendents and districts?
There were well-meaning people who put together No Child Behind. And they thought some measure was needed to spotlight those schools. [AYP] has certainly been helpful. But there is a great deal of disagreement and dissatisfaction about how AYP should be measured. The question of accountability is one that needs to be sorted through.
So what would you put in place of AYP and other No Child accountability measures?
We want taxpayers to get their money’s worth. We want to have some measure of what kids are doing. And we want to get rid of some programs that are counterproductive and ensure a better return on the dollar. But it is not easy because you are coming from two different perspectives. [Republicans] are wary of too much power coming out of the federal government. The longstanding Republican position is to hold back the federal government. There isn’t universal agreement on how to fix it.
Throughout the past year, you have argued for a return to local control. At the same time, you argue for greater school choice. Yet school districts oppose — and would fight against — any expansion of choice. Doesn’t the two positions prove to be mutually contradictory?
We should be giving more choices than fewer. For example, the D.C. Opportunity System program is one experiment we support. It would not be practical for the federal government to fund a voucher program. Bu we support more choice. Now, you are right that there isn’t stakeholder agreement on how to fix education. There would be some pushback from some elements of the public school systems [against choice].
You have been skeptical of Race to the Top. Why?
I think it was irresponsible of Congress to give [Secretary of Education Duncan] $5 billion with no strings attached. Race to the Top did some pretty bold things and some of them were in line with the Republican agenda like expanding charter schools. Other parts can be problematic. When you begin moving to a common assessment, if you’re only going reward states for adopting common standards, then you are moving into creating a common curriculum. Many of us are afraid that with common curriculum, are moving to a national curriculum. If you look at the second tranche of Race to the Top, only the states that adopted common standards would get Race to the Top money.
This year, President Obama asked for $1.3 billion more for Race to the Top this budget year. Why should Congress give more money to a program that hasn’t proven itself? Race to the Top money is just one-time money. A lot of states didn’t get it.. And the states who got the money, I’m not sure that they would have done [undertaken the required reforms] if they didn’t need the money.
What about the competitive grant process at the heart of Race to the Top. Would you support efforts to expand that approach to other funding?
Republicans are going to be very leery of giving Department of Education granting authority over Title I money. It politicizes Title I. ‘If you do it my way, you get money; if you don’t do it , you won’t get money.’ Republicans are going to be very leery of politicizing programs because administrations will change.
What are your thoughts about what President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan are doing when it comes to dealing with teacher quality issues?
You have an interesting situation with a Democratic administration and a Democrat as secretary of education saying that [teachers unions] have to give and you have to have some way of rewarding good teachers. Secretary Duncan and the administration brought out the idea of breaking up the ironclad rules on tenure. I have told them “If you can do this, God Bless you. Because Republicans can’t do it.” It would be expected [that Republicans want to abolish tenure]. There are Democrats on the other side who are allied with the teachers unions, who oppose any end to tenure, which I disagree with. There are folks in [House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller’s] caucus who wouldn’t think of crossing the teachers unions.