U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised school board members that he will do everything in his power to ensure that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is reauthorized by the next school year, and the law’s escalating and unfair sanctions will be replaced with supports and rewards for excellent schools.
But to the frustration of several school board members, he refused to address the “what if” question: What actions would he take to remove sanctions if Congress does not get a new law passed in time for the new school year?
Duncan, the keynote luncheon speaker at NSBA’s Federal Relations Conference on Monday, said his priorities are reauthorizing ESEA, creating better labor-management relations, raising academic standards, and giving every child a well-rounded education. He also vowed to support reform at the local level.
“There’s a huge appetite, led by some of you, for change, and for reform,” Duncan told the audience of more than 800 school board members and state association leaders.
Conversations with school board members and administrators have convinced him that ESEA must be reauthorized this year. Too many schools are being labeled as failing, he said, which undermines the work and morale of students, teachers, and administrators as well as the public’s confidence in schools. And the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 reauthorization of ESEA, also inadvertently has led to “dumbing down” of state standards and narrowing of the curriculum, Duncan said.
“We have to fix all of these things,” he said.
But Duncan deflected a question from NSBA President Earl C. Rickman III, who was cheered on by the audience when asked where he would support the deferral of the most costly sanctions if the reauthorization was not completed this year. NSBA’s advocacy department is pushing members of Congress to pass a comprehensive bill, or at least legislation to remove some of the sanctions, by June 30.
“My mentality is to get this thing passed,” Duncan said. “If not, we will cross that bridge at the end of the day. It must be fixed for the entire country. I would love to have a law passed and on the president’s desk by the start of the school year.”
Further prodding during the question-and-answer session did not bring any more details.
Duncan said a recent trip to Georgia showed him the “extraordinary power school board members have to drive change.”
The secretary visited the suburban Gwinnett County school district, which won the 2010 Broad Prize for Urban Education, for its ability to advance student learning, which has seen dramatic changes in the racial and economic diversity in its population.
He then pointed to the Atlanta school district, which is in danger of losing its accreditation in part because of infighting among its school board members.
During the rigorous question-and-answer session, school board members forced Duncan to defend the Obama administration’s plans to force states to take drastic actions on the lowest performing 5 percent of schools. Some also pushed him to explain the administration’s actions to create new competitive grants, which many smaller school districts might not have the capacity to write grants to compete, while proposing only small increases or level-funding of formula grant programs, including Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“Do you really believe our children should compete for their education?” asked one member from Washington state.
“We will never walk away from our commitments,” said Duncan. He said at least 84 percent of federal K-12 funds will always be formula based, but he insisted that there should be a pot of money set aside to reward states and districts that take the initiative to create excellent programs and higher standards.
Duncan also promised that President Obama will make ESEA and improving K-12 education a top priority, and that his recent State of the Union speech was only the beginning of a long-term commitment.
Rickman, meanwhile, told audience members that whether or not they agreed with the secretary, “He is our best hope for getting any kind of changes and reform.”