Q: What do you say to critics on Capitol Hill who say that you have overstepped your bounds?

We absolutely have the authority, the previous administration used the same authority, so there’s nothing new here. I’ve said repeatedly this was Plan B, and when and if Congress gets their act together and wants to work and fix the No Child Left Behind law for the entire country, then we’ll back off. But until that point, again, we feel a real sense of urgency to partner with hard-working folks across the country who are trying to raise graduation rates and reduce drop-out rates and make sure more students are college- and career-ready, and we feel very fortunate to be a good partner to them.

Q: Is Congress totally dysfunctional?

Well, I’m not the political expert here. It is disheartening to see, given the tremendous needs I see… but you look at the public approval of Congress, that’s not something anyone in Congress can feel good about or be proud of. It’s easy to point fingers. I’m not interested in pointing fingers or laying the blame. You know, tomorrow’s always a new day, and there’s an opportunity, a huge opportunity, for folks to come together and really help get the country in a stronger place.

Q: You said you’d be willing to back off if Congress got its act together. The Senate [Health, Education, Labor and Pensions] Committee has a bill. Would that be a good starting point?

It’s a starting point, and it was done in a bipartisan way. For me it’s always about both the policy but also the process for getting there. This has to be done in a bipartisan way. There are some things we liked in there, there are some things we didn’t like. What’s been interesting is because of the opportunity to go through the waiver process we’ve seen this tremendous outpouring of creativity and innovation coming from the states themselves, and some fantastic ideas that are out there. So when the House and Senate start to work, I really hope they don’t do this in isolation, they look at these great things that are happening … across the nation and take some of the best ideas from there, and I think from a policy side, that would make the ultimate reauthorization that much stronger.

Q: You’re about to testify on Capitol Hill this week with regard to your budget. What’s your message to the members?

Well, we just have to continue to invest. We have to invest not in the status quo but in the vision of reform, but when you look at Congressman [Paul] Ryan’s [(R-Wis.)] budget, it would have just devastating impacts on education, huge reductions in access to Pell Grants, huge reductions in funding for children who live below the poverty line, children with special needs. That directionally is not where the country needs to go. We need to educate our way to a better economy.

Q: Making college affordable is also a priority for the administration.

When you look at where the jobs of the future are, all good-paying jobs are going to require some kind of higher education once you graduate from high school. … So one of the things I’m most proud of is, we’ve shifted $40 billion from subsidizing banks, put all that money into Pell Grants, didn’t go back to taxpayers for a nickel. That was very controversial here in Washington. It was absolutely the right thing to do, and as I travel the country I can’t even tell you how many people come up really expressing their appreciation for that.

But in the president’s budget, we’re trying to keep down interest rates on loans, we’re trying to double the number of work-study opportunities for young people working hard getting through college, and if we want to keep good jobs in this country, if we want to continue to create the kinds of opportunities where businesses want to come to our communities and stay because that’s where the knowledge workers are, higher education is so critically important to that. [We’re putting a] huge emphasis also on community colleges, and whether it’s green-energy jobs or healthcare jobs or IT jobs, as families get back on their feet, our country’s going to get back on its feet, and community colleges we think have a huge role to play there. We’re making very significant investments there as well.

Q: You’ve been at this job now, this is your fourth year — would you like to sign up for another four years if the president gets reelected?

Well, it’s up to the president, but it’s been an amazing, amazing opportunity and these couple of years … this time flies by so fast and we have so much further to go, so I’m in this work for the long haul. This is not a time to be complacent, this is not a time to say “Mission accomplished.” We have so much further to go. We want to lead the world in college graduation rates, that’s the north star of our work, and until the president gets tired of me, me and my team are in this for the long haul.

Q: So you would say yes?

Without a doubt. This is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. You pinch yourself some days to think you have this opportunity. I always go back to my mother’s program, working in a church basement in the south side of Chicago in one community and trying to build upon her work, first locally and now at the national level. I can’t tell you how much it means to me and my family to have this opportunity.