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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Straight Up Conversation: Rep. Duncan Hunter

By Rick Hess — April 06, 2011 10 min read
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On Monday, I had the opportunity to chat with Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), the new chair of the House Education & Workforce Committee’s Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. He took the gavel for the first time in January. This means, of course, that Rep. Hunter is point man in the House for reauthorization of NCLB (nee ESEA). A decorated veteran of both the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan, Hunter is in his second term. He represents California’s 52nd congressional district, encompassing a good chunk of San Diego, and serves in the seat previously held by his father. As Alyson Klein noted recently in Ed Week, Hunter is now one of the “Big 8" lawmakers who will shape ESEA reauthorization and, “Rep. Hunter is considered much more conservative than his Republican predecessor on the Big 8, Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., who was defeated in his primary last year.”

Given that Hunter’s views on schooling aren’t yet well known, it seemed a good time to introduce him to RHSU readers. A genial, plain-spoken interviewee, Hunter was disarmingly candid and funny. He said he’s still getting up to speed on some of the issues but also made clear he holds some strong opinions regarding the federal government’s appropriate role in K-12 schooling. Hunter said ESEA reauthorization may very well happen this year and endorsed more robust federal leadership when it comes to promoting performance data and transparency. At the same time, Hunter finds the administration’s spending plans unrealistic, opposes more Race to the Top funding and federal support for Common Core assessments, is prepared to fight for DC vouchers, and thinks student performance is ultimately a matter of parental responsibility. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick Hess: The president and Secretary Duncan have spoken frequently about the administration’s “blueprint” for reauthorization of ESEA. What’s your take? And what’s the likelihood of reauthorization this year or next?
Duncan Hunter: I think it has a really high chance of passing this year. I think everybody realizes that No Child Left Behind is broken from whatever point of view you’re looking at it at. I think it’ll be done this year. Not as soon as the Senate or the President would like it to be, but I think it’ll be done this year, barring any unforeseen circumstances. On their blueprint, I think they’re off a little bit, but in broad terms, if you hear Arne Duncan speak or the President speak on education, you could substitute Michele Bachmann in there, for the most part. They sound very Republican-ish, they might be at the American Enterprise Institute giving a speech on education. In broad terms, we all can agree on 90% of what everybody’s talking about, but where the rubber hits the road is the implementation...and the fine-tuning and the fine details.

RH: As far as the points of friction, are there one or two examples that stand out for you?
DH: Sure. [I’ve got doubts about] blowing up the bottom five percent of schools [or proposals for] competitive grants, as opposed to block grants. Rural schools have a hard time matching up to Secretary Duncan’s competitive grant process because they don’t have a staff of grant writers available. It’s those types of things that take an army of bureaucrats within your education system, and a lot of schools and school districts in this country don’t have that ability.

RH: If you disagree with the administration’s vision for tackling the bottom five percent or its call for competitive grants, that sounds like you’ve got pretty substantial concerns. No?
DH: Yes, but I don’t think they are unfixable. There’s got to be a way to deal with the bottom five percent of schools and maybe Secretary Duncan is right, maybe some schools do need to get blown up and have the principals, teachers, and administrators replaced totally. Or maybe those schools just need to go away and let the market work and let kids go to schools where their parents want to send them. The answer in this stuff--and I’m coming into this [with such limited lead time], I’ve been trying to drink through a fire hose on learning education in general--what I’ve found is there are a lot of great answers and a lot of great fixes, but nothing works everywhere. There’s no silver bullet...I don’t think there’s a one size fits all model for anything in education, except for getting it out of DC.

RH: You’ve just expressed concerns about the administration’s desire for more competitive grants. Their most famous competitive grant, of course, has been Race to the Top. What’s your take on RTT?
DH: With all due respect to Secretary Duncan, whom I admire, if nothing else, for his tenacity, what he’s done is he’s conned all the states into adopting standards without us having that debate at the federal level. To be able to compare apple and apples is a good thing...But they were kind of coerced or tricked, maybe with all the best of intentions, but the point is they’ve adopted them...So I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but I don’t want to see it repeated.

RH: If a Race to the Top extension didn’t include standards, would you be more favorably disposed, or...?
DH: No. I think Race to the Top injects the federal government too much, [that] having the states fight over money [is a mistake]. This isn’t a blood sport with Jean Claude Van Damme. I just think it’s the wrong way to go about it.

RH: More specifically, on the Common Core, it sounds like you’re fine with the standards in principle but your concern is with having the federal government push them. Is that accurate?
DH: Exactly. We don’t want [the federal government] to be a national school board here. What we want is for the states and schools to agree. Ideally, we want parents to be able to compare apples to apples, to say, “We’re moving from San Diego to Virginia, how can we compare schools?” Or how can we even compare schools within a district?

RH: In the $4.35 billion set aside for Race to the Top, $350 million was earmarked for Duncan to fund the consortia developing the Common Core assessments. Some of those funds are also supporting the development of curricular materials. Do you have any thoughts on this front? Do you have any concerns?
DH: I don’t know enough about it yet. At a broad level, I don’t think the Department of Education should be dictating, or even working with companies that are dictating, what the tests are going to be. I think that should be left up to the states. In a perfect world the states would get together with their governors and their education secretaries and determine what those tests are going to look like...I don’t think we as the federal government should be involved in those common tests.

RH: What do you see as the appropriate role for the federal government when it comes to standards, data, and assessment?
DH: There has to be a way for schools and districts to be accountable to the parents and to the different stakeholders. The only way I can see to do that is to have data that is transparent and available and actually tells what the school is doing... It could be incumbent on the federal government to create a website to put data from schools and school districts to see how teachers, schools, and districts are ranked. The only argument I’ve heard against that are privacy concerns, but that’s ridiculous because people gather data about us all the time, whether it’s Google or anyone else. The federal government might be the only one able to do this, to get data from all 50 states so we really can compare apples to apples. Otherwise, different states are using different data and you wouldn’t be able to compare. So that’s something that I’m interested in.

RH: In terms of ESEA reauthorization, do you see a federal role regarding charter schools or turnarounds?
DH: I think there is, especially now for charter schools. I like the idea of a charter school start up fund that provides seed money to help start a charter school. As education matures, and the “free-marketness” develops, I’d like to see banks and other organizations--maybe charities, 501(c)3s, non-profit lenders--filling that void so we don’t need government money to start charter schools.

RH: Do you think there’s a federal role in terms of monitoring charter school quality?
DH: No. I think everything when it comes to the quality of education has to be a state and local issue...There’s not going to be some lever that once it’s tripped, a federal government education SWAT team descends down and fires all your teachers.

RH: The President’s proposed budget, once you get past the Continuing Resolution, calls for an 11% increase...
DH: ...You’re optimistic! You’re saying, “Once we get past the CR.” I’m saying, “If we get past the CR!” We could be discussing the FY ’11 budget into the fall!
RH: ...Good point. All right, if you get to the FY ’12 budget, the President has called for an 11% increase in edu-spending...
DH: ...Yeah, I don’t see that at all.
RH: What do you think is a more reasonable number?
DH: First, we’re going to show that the supposed correlation between spending and results doesn’t exist. And two, this sounds kind of hokey, but we would like to spend as little as possible and still get the job done. And that’s far less than what the President has asked for. I don’t have a number, though I think it would be below, far below, [what the President has proposed]. And we’d like to find a mechanism to push [some of] the money to the school districts without going through the states, because they rake off a percentage of everything that they handle... Everybody realizes we can’t spend more than we are.
RH: Are you thinking in terms of a figure that’s at the current level of spending, or somewhere below that?
DH: Below that. Definitely lower. Hopefully, much lower.

RH: Some reformers have suggested there’s a need for the federal government to spend more to support state education agencies because...
DH: ...No.
RH: So, you’re not open to that?
DH: No.

RH: With states wrestling with shortfalls, do you see any federal role either in providing additional dollars...?
DH: ...Nope. The states that you see wrestling with shortfalls are states that are poorly managed and they dug their own hole. And it’s a slippery slope when you start to think that taxpayers from every state have to bail out the ones that spent without thinking.

RH: The Speaker has made it clear that one of his priorities is getting the DC scholarship program, the voucher program, funded once again. What’s your stance on that?
DH: I think it’s great. It’s simple. You give parents the ability to say, “We want kids to go here, and I’ll do it, so they at least have a chance to succeed.” So I’m for it.
RH: Given that the administration has now said it opposes DC vouchers, is this something you’re prepared to fight for?
DH: It would be a massive act of hypocrisy if the administration was to fight DC vouchers. And, yes, I’m willing to fight for it.

RH: Big picture, any thoughts as to the key factor explaining why some students don’t succeed in school?
DH: The blame in the end goes to the parents--to the mom and the dad, that’s where the blame lies. You could send my kids to any school, and I guarantee you that they are going to get straight A’s. My wife is standing behind them whacking them over the head every time they stop doing their homework. I’ve got a 10-year-old, a 7-year-old, and a 4-year-old. We stand over them like little dictators and make them do exactly what they’re supposed to do...If a parent doesn’t do that, there’s only so much an educator can do, no matter how good they are, no matter how much money is invested in that school.

RH: Given the importance of the parental role, what do see as the federal government’s role when it comes to education?
DH: It’s impossible to force good parenting, so beyond that, you have to push it down to the lowest level, extricate the federal government as much as possible from the education process, period. It’s easier to vote out a school board member with 15,000 votes than to vote me out, if people don’t like what I’ve done when it comes to education... [The federal government should have] a limited role. It can provide the data for the different states, municipalities and schools; that’s easily done. You see companies track millions of products and people every day. We should be able to do that with the 100,000 schools that I’m dealing with. I think that’s one of the key roles, to provide the ability for stakeholders, for parents, to compare apples to apples. But it’s up to the states and municipalities to succeed or fail.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.