Published Online: January 20, 2010
Published in Print: January 27, 2010, as Incentives to Loom Large in ESEA Reauthorization, Duncan Promises Mayors

Duncan Tells Mayors to Expect Incentives in ESEA

Providing incentives for districts that are making progress on student achievement will be a key element of the Obama administration’s plan for renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week.

“There are 50 ways to fail” under the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the law, said Mr. Duncan, a critique he has raised in the past. But there are “very little, if any, rewards if you do a good job. … We want to put unprecedented resources out there on a competitive basis for those who are committed” to boosting student achievement.

Secretary Duncan reminded mayors gathered at the Capital Hilton last week that the Obama administration is seeking to make the economic-stimulus program’s Race to the Top Fund a permanent fixture in the Department of Education’s budget. That fund will provide up to $4 billion in competitive grants to states to spur education reform efforts. The administration will ask Congress to provide $1.35 billion to extend the program beyond next year.

Mr. Duncan told mayors that, under the administration’s proposal, the expanded Race to the Top would be opened to school districts, not just states, and that the mayors should work with their local districts to apply for the new funds.

He also reiterated what has become a standard part of his speech on ESEA reauthorization, saying that the administration wants to see “higher standards and higher expectations” from states and districts.

Duncan on ESEA Reauthorization

He said that he wants the new version of the law to be “tight on goals” but looser in terms of how states should achieve them. That line got enthusiastic applause from the audience of local leaders.

The education secretary also encouraged mayors to work with their school districts to go after other competitive grants yet to be allocated under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus law passed in February. They include $650 million in Investing in Innovation grants, which are aimed at scaling up promising practices at the local level, and $200 million in new money for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which helps districts create pay-for-performance programs.

This was not the first time that Secretary Duncan has said he envisions an important role for such incentives in the next version of the ESEA law, which was scheduled for reauthorization in 2007. ("Duncan Aims to Make Incentives Key Element of ESEA," Dec. 9, 2009.)

A Look Ahead

Many advocates expect that some of the policies states are asked to embrace in Race to the Top—such as a focus on the lowest-performing schools and an emphasis on using student-achievement data to inform personnel and programmatic decisions—will likely be promoted in the Obama administration’s forthcoming ESEA proposal. ("'Race to Top' Viewed as Template for a New ESEA," Jan. 6, 2010.)

Salvatore J. Panto Jr., the mayor of Easton, Pa., gave Mr. Duncan high marks for the Race to the Top, calling it “an excellent” program.

He said his school district was able to get the superintendent on board with the state’s application for Race to the Top money, but that the teachers’ union, an affiliate of the 3.2 million National Education Association, did not sign on to the state’s plan. He asked Mr. Duncan for his advice on how to get unions to go along with the agenda.

The secretary said that, in the applications submitted Jan. 19 for the first round of the Race to the Top grants, 600 state and local unions “signed on the dotted line” in support of their states’ bids, although he said that it had been a problem in some places to get unions on board. ("Two State Unions Balking at 'Race to Top' Plans," Jan. 6, 2010)

Racial Diversity

But he said there have been encouraging signs that unions are ready to embrace significant change, including a speech last week in which Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million member American Federation of Teachers acknowledged that there need to be changes to due-process protections for teachers who attain tenured status. ("AFT Chief Promises Due-Process Reform," Jan. 20, 2010.)

Mr. Duncan called that speech “an absolute breakthrough” and urged mayors to get a copy. But he repeated what has become his signature tough talk when it comes to teacher quality, saying that unions need to “stop protecting the small percentage of teachers who need to find another profession.”

Jerry Abramson, the mayor of Louisville, Ky., asked how the Education Department plans to encourage districts to create racial diversity in their schools. He made reference to a landmark 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case in which his school district was a defendant, Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education. In its decision, the court barred districts from using race as the primary factor in assigning individual students to schools. ("Louisville District Unveils New Student-Assignment Plan," Feb. 6, 2008.)

“You can’t put a price” on the value of ensuring that students get a chance to attend school in a diverse environment, Secretary Duncan said. He said the Education Department's office for civil rights had been, “to say the very least, underutilized over the last eight years,” an apparent reference to President George W. Bush’s tenure.

But he said that department officials, including Russlyn H. Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights, and Charlie Rose, the department’s general counsel, are now considering next steps on the diversity issue. He wasn’t specific about their plans, though.

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” Mr. Duncan said. “Stay tuned.”

Vol. 29, Issue 19, Pages 12-13

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