School & District Management

Duncan Reluctant to Tweak Accountability-System Oversight

Secretary responds to Indiana grade-change flap
By Michele McNeil — August 06, 2013 4 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discusses accountability systems, waivers, and preschool in a wide-ranging interview last week.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sees no need to step up the federal role in oversight of new accountability systems that are part of his department’s No Child Left Behind Act waiver program, even in the wake of a school-grading flap that last week cost Florida Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett his job.

In a wide-ranging interview with Education Week last week, Mr. Duncan did not defend Mr. Bennett—embroiled in a controversy stemming from his previous job as Indiana state schools chief—or Mr. Bennett’s actions. Nor did Mr. Duncan say there’s a reason at this point for federal officials to investigate what happened in the Hoosier State, which involved a grading system at the heart of its NCLB waiver agreement.

Instead, the secretary said, it’s important that those systems be developed and implemented transparently. And in the case of Indiana, given that the grading-system changes were exposed in the media, transparency prevailed, he said in the Aug. 1 interview.

“I’m not worried. See what happens when someone messes up?” Mr. Duncan said, adding that he doesn’t know if Mr. Bennett did anything wrong. “You need maximum transparency, and if anyone’s looking to do something silly, the costs on their lives and careers is profound.”

The Indiana changes came to light after the Associated Press obtained internal state education department emails from last fall.

Indiana is one of 39 states plus the District of Columbia with federal waivers allowing them considerable flexibility to design their own school accountability systems and freedom from many of the constraints of the NCLB law as written in 2001.

Mr. Duncan said that all the facts of the Indiana situation will come out soon enough.

“I think the facts will emerge, and we’ll look at them,” he said.

Waiver Renewals Loom

Even as states continue to work out the kinks in their waiver systems, it’s almost time for those state-federal agreements to be renewed. Federal approval of the waiver plans expire as early as the end of the 2013-14 school year. But Mr. Duncan wouldn’t offer any details about what a renewal process might look like.

“It’s early. We’re starting to think about it; we’d love to figure out if reauthorization has a shot in a bipartisan way,” he said.

By reauthorization, Mr. Duncan meant a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the NCLB law. While there are bills moving in both chambers of Congress to revamp the outdated law, Mr. Duncan has not been out front as a strong advocate for renewal, as he’s been on other issues, such as President Barack Obama’s proposal to greatly expand access to preschool.

“You want to spend time where people are serious,” said Mr. Duncan, explaining that he doesn’t view the House Republican version of an ESEA reauthorization, approved last month on a party-line vote, as “serious” in a bipartisan way. “I want to spend time where there’s a chance to get things done.”

Even though Mr. Duncan has been making many public appearances in support of President Obama’s preschool initiative, no bill has yet been introduced, nor is there an appetite in Congress to raise taxes to support public programs. But Mr. Duncan sharply rejects the view that preschool legislation is a lost cause.

“Totally disagree. Why is this not a wild goose chase? Because there is such extraordinary bipartisan investment and support across the country that we’re seeing from governors, Republican and Democrat,” he said. “And while it is not public yet, we have had many, many conversations with Republican leaders in the House and Senate that are frankly encouraging.”

Mr. Duncan said preschool is one of the most important policy initiatives he wants to accomplish in Mr. Obama’s second term.

“You have 3½ years to think about what are the big things you want to get done, and the fact that today so few children in this country have access to high-quality early-childhood education, the fact that so many start kindergarten so far behind, the fact that so many never catch up, to me is morally unacceptable, ” he said.

District Agreements?

Mr. Duncan wouldn’t talk much about the tailor-made waiver that nine California districts are seeking in order to get out from under provisions of the NCLB law just as states have done. That would be a first-of-its-kind waiver and would upend the traditional relationship districts have with states. With the beginning of school just a couple of weeks away, those school districts—which cover about 1 million students and include Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Fresno—are anxious for an answer.

But Mr. Duncan gave no clues about whether he would go forward with granting such a waiver, except to say his staff hasn’t presented him with a proposal to consider.

“Our teams have been working hard,” he said. “At some point, staff will bring a recommendation to me; we’re not at that point yet.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Duncan Unlikely to Tweak Accountability Oversight

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