Education secretary sounds alarm on education ‘emergency’

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been in office for 16 months now.  He sat down with The Hill’s Comment Editor Emmanuel Touhey last Thursday to talk about the Obama administration’s agenda for students and teachers.

Q: When should Congress reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?
 I absolutely think it should come up this year, and I’m hopeful that it will, and I think we have a chance to fix many of the things that didn’t work in No Child Left Behind. We’ve been working very closely with Democrats, Republicans, House and Senate, bipartisan, bicameral, and this is the one issue I think politics and ideology have to totally go to the side. We just simply have to do the right thing for children here, and we have the chance to do that, so the conversations have been very positive, very productive. I’m hopeful we can reauthorize this year and help drive reform to another level and get rid of some of the perverse incentives that were in, unfortunately, NCLB that I think actually hurt children.

Q: One of the things you’ve done since taking office is the Race to the Top program. How successful has that been?
Race to the Top has been simply extraordinary; to see the amount of change we’ve seen around the country because of this opportunity. I had high hopes going into it, but it’s far exceeded my wildest expectations…. The amount of change, the number of state laws that have moved in the right direction has been simply amazing. So we had a very, very good and difficult, tough competition in the first round. We had two winners, Delaware and Tennessee, that did a phenomenal job. We anticipate perhaps having 10 to 15 winners in the second round, and we hope to go back to Congress for Race to the Top 3 and the following and keep working with that next set of states….

Q: The Maryland State Education Association has expressed concern about the program and that state’s approach to the program. How crucial is union support in different states to the program’s success?
It does matter. What we want to fund, first and foremost, is bold reform. This is not about funding the status quo. So we want to fund those states that are doing a great job of really driving a reform agenda forward.  Best-case scenario, you have widespread, deep support. We saw that again in Tennessee and Delaware, amazing support, but first and foremost, a very strong and serious reform agenda. So that comes first, but where you have adults working together, is that helpful? Of course it is.

Q: In a speech last fall, you quoted President Johnson, “Washington should be a partner, not a boss, of local school authorities,” but you’re not willing to be a silent partner.
It’s so important that we be a good partner, that we be supportive. I’ve said often that as hard as we’re pushing everyone else to change, we have to be very self-critical and look in the mirror.  I’ve said very publicly our Department of Education, I think, has been part of the problem…. The good ideas are never going to come from Washington, and they’re always going to come from the local level…. We’re going to challenge the status quo when schools aren’t working for children. We have about 2,000 high schools that produce half our nation’s dropouts. Those 2,000 high schools produce about 75 percent of our dropouts for the minority community, our African American/Latino boys and girls. I think those kinds of situations are economically unsustainable for our country and they’re morally unacceptable….

Q: The recession has had a huge effect on a lot of Americans. We had a stimulus package last year that has helped. Do you think there should be another stimulus for education?
I’m very concerned. We were so thankful for the recovery act last year that we saved, conservatively, 300,000 education jobs around the country. Districts used that money wisely to keep teachers in the classroom and not see class size skyrocket, but that money’s been spent this year. We’ve been extraordinarily vocal. I think this is an emergency. I think we need to keep teachers in the classroom. We don’t want to see class size go to 40 to 45. We don’t want to see summer school being eliminated, particularly for disadvantaged children. We have school districts going to four-day weeks rather than five-day weeks, and I’m arguing that we need a lot more time for children, not less time…. None of this is good for children, none of this is good for education, and none of this is good for the economy…

Q: The White House task force on obesity has just issued a 124-page report with 70 recommendations. What do you take away from that report, and what will be your role going forward in terms of using your own bully pulpit to deal with that issue?
I’m just so thankful for the first lady’s leadership on this…. This work has huge implications for our nation’s children and for their ability to demonstrate their real potential and to be successful in the classroom and educationally.  So it means a number of different things to us.  First, we have to think about, are we giving students a chance to exercise—before school, P.E., lunch, recess, after school…. Second, we have to make sure the food that our students are getting in school is much more nutritious…. Third, we want to make sure what’s in vending machines is healthy.  If you want to fix the breakfasts and lunches, we want to make sure those are nutritious snacks in the vending machines in those schools.  Finally, … I also worry about students and hunger.  We have children that really struggle to get enough food.  Again, these are often children in the same communities.  So how do we make sure we’re reaching more students, given a tough economy, more families struggling financially, more pressure on those family budgets?  When I ran Chicago Public Schools, we had a couple thousand students where we were not just serving them breakfast, lunch and dinner, but we were actually sending them home on Friday afternoons very quietly, very discreetly, with a bag full of food to take them through the weekends because we were very worried about them not eating over the weekends and coming back to school Monday morning hungry.  Finding ways to increase the nutritional quality of breakfasts and lunches, making sure those snacks are healthy, but also making sure children who are hungry are being fed.  There’s lots there for us to think about, but it’s absolutely the right set of issues for us to be focusing on and if we do this well, I think our children will do that much better academically.