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Duncan Hopeful on ESEA, and Eager for Campaign Trail

By Alyson Klein — September 22, 2010 2 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a room full of Washington reporters today that he’s still hoping to move on a bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act early next year. But, when asked if he’d like to change anything in the Obama administration’s blueprint for renewal, released last March, he said only that he’d like to beef-up parent involvement, while offering few other specifics.

Duncan was also asked about the four school Improvement models outlined as a condition for federal turnaround aid, which folks (including members of Congress) have said are too prescriptive. The models will almost certainly be a major ESEA flashpoint, whenever reauthorization happens.

Giving schools clear choices on how to turn around struggling schools makes more sense than allowing them to simply continue with “the status quo,” Duncan said. But he added that the four models are not the final word on school improvement, and that the department plans to study and track the models to see which strategies work best. So it appears he may be open to tweaks.

And Duncan’s not irked that the majority of schools have opted for the transformational model, definitely the least disruptive of the four. He said it’s not up to him to decide what strategies will work best for individual schools and communities

As the midterms approach, Duncan will be campaigning, and maybe appearing at fundraisers, for some congressional candidates who he thinks can make a difference on K-12 issues. Not surprisingly, that includes Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, the former Denver schools chief and one of the administration’s go-to guys in Congress on education policy. Bennet, who is locked in a tight race against tea party fave Ken Buck, could be an important voice on education issues in the Senate for years to come, Duncan said. He’ll also be campaigning for Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va., and Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic nominee for an open Illinois Senate seat. (Duncan is definitely not the first secretary of education to hit the campaign trail before a hot midterm election.)

Duncan was asked a lot about whether he thinks Michelle Rhee should keep her job heading up District of Columbia school system. The secretary made it clear it’s not up to him, but that he thinks she’s done great work and wishes she could stay for years, particularly since he thinks that continuity in leadership can be good for a district. Rhee said she saw Mayor Adrian Fenty’s defeat as “devastating” for the children of D.C. But Duncan didn’t trash council member Vincent Gray, who is now a shoe-in for DC mayor, saying he’s also passionate about helping students succeed.

And Duncan’s advice to reporters? See how Race to the Top is playing out in gubernatorial races. (My colleague, Sean Cavanagh, already has taken him up on that one.)