U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged school board members Monday at NSBA’s Federal Relations Network (FRN) meeting in Washington, D.C., to “stay the course” through a tumultuous time in public education, predicting that in a few years the nation will see big results from programs such as Race to the Top (RTTT) and the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
“The implementation of Common Core is really difficult,” Duncan said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work, and I really urge you to stay the course.”
However, he added: “I think the back-end of all this – three or four years from now – the country’s going to be in a radically different place.”
Duncan spoke briefly, but quickly and emphatically. He praised school board members for their dedication, and gave out his email address, saying he wanted to hear their concerns. In a short question and answer period, skeptical board members raised concerns about the proliferation of charter schools; unfunded federal mandates; competitions for funding, such as RTTT (the questioner said dedicated funding made more sense); and what many saw as an erosion of local control.
“This is a tough crowd,” the education secretary quipped at one point.
One requirement for states receiving funds has been a lifting of state caps on the number of charter schools. But Duncan said he didn’t favor charters over regular public schools.
“I’m just a big proponent of high-quality public schools,” Duncan said. “That’s traditional schools. That’s magnet schools. And that may be charter schools.”
Speaking of the achievement gap, Duncan said, “In some places we’re seeing real progress, but in other places these gaps are extraordinarily large.”
But Melinda Bernard, a board member for the St. Charles Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, said the problems of public school are being exaggerated.
“I think you will agree, public education’s being denigrated by the media recently,” Bernard told Duncan. “Especially our teachers.”
Duncan touted some of the Obama administration’s accomplishments, including an additional $600 million for early childhood education and an increase in the number of Pell Grants from 6 million in 2008 to 10 million last year. He said the $4 billion in competitive grants for RTTT may seem like a large number, but is less than 1 percent of the department’s $650 billion budget. He said that competition has spurred states to make major innovations regarding the common core, teacher evaluation, and other challenges.
Speaking of the recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Duncan said the Obama administration has “huge support for the Second Amendment,” but added, “I do feel that if we don’t act now as a country, we will never act.”
A former school superintendent for the Chicago Public Schools, Duncan said he was acquainted with the problem of violence, particularly in inner-city neighborhoods.
“We lost one child every two weeks due to the gang problem,” Duncan said. “It was a staggering loss.”