School & District Management

Duncan to Give Districts Shot at Race to Top

In interview, education secretary talks waivers, future plans
By Michele McNeil — January 20, 2012 7 min read
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Flush with $550 million in new Race to the Top money, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says he intends to use most of it to design a new competition just for school districts.

“You can do different things. You can do early childhood as a piece of that, or STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] as a piece of that,” Mr. Duncan, now starting his fourth year as education secretary, said in a wide-ranging interview with Education Week last week. “I don’t want to commit, but the bulk of the money will go through districts. ... What we’ll be asking of districts is still very much up for consideration.”

Mr. Duncan also used the Jan. 17 interview to address what he sees as the strength of his department’s No Child Left Behind waiver plan, the weaknesses of congressional attempts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and his desire to stay on as secretary through a second term if President Barack Obama is re-elected—which would make him one of the longest-serving federal education secretaries.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says he would like to stay on if President Barack Obama is re-elected in November.

For now, Mr. Duncan, who has overseen a massive infusion of one-time federal aid to education through the economic-stimulus package of 2009, now has a fresh pot of money to spend. In the fiscal year 2012 budget deal, Congress late last year awarded the Department of Education another $550 million to extend the Race to the Top—Mr. Obama’s signature education initiative—and this time allowed the grant money to be awarded directly to school districts, not just to states.

It’s clear that Mr. Duncan sees the potential of investing a half-billion dollars in districts, especially in states that are, as he calls them, “less functional” and haven’t won any other competitive grants.

“I love that we played at the state level. I love that we played in the early-childhood space,” said Mr. Duncan, referring to the original $4 billion state competition from 2010, and last year’s $500 million early-learning contest. “But I’m really, really pleased now to have a chance to participate with districts, and there’s a huge appetite there.”

He said his staff is still working out the details of the new competition, including how best to reach rural, urban, and suburban districts—and whether to encourage groups of districts to apply.

The American Association of School Administrators would prefer to see new money for flagship programs such as special education and the Title I program for disadvantaged children. But, given that Congress created the special pool of money, a district competition could be an effective “way to drive dollars to schools to support good ideas that help support/improve student learning,” said Noelle M. Ellerson, the assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy at the AASA, in Alexandria, Va.

“The district-level [Race to the Top] will need to play out,” Ms. Ellerson said. “In talking with superintendents this week and last, this is one of the first times I have heard a more positive tone, and a level of interest, given the district focus and the ability to get the dollars to the local and regional level.”

If there is going to be another competition, investing in school districts is the way to go, according to the Council of Great City Schools, based in Washington. “We think district-wide reform is actually where the action is,” said Jeff Simering, the council’s legislative director.

Waivers Pending

Secretary Duncan also faces the immediate task of overseeing an ambitious plan to grant states waivers of many of the core components of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The waiver plan is his answer to Congress’ inability, so far, to formally rewrite the ESEA. Already, 11 states have applied in the first round, with a second wave of applications due Feb. 21.

Given the alternatives of sticking with the waiver strategy or having to live with one of the proposed versions of a new ESEA offered by the House and the Senate, Mr. Duncan said the choice is clear.

“No question the waivers are a stronger plan,” he said. “I hope that changes. I hope at some point next month, six months from now, or next year that we get a strong bipartisan bill; unfortunately, that’s not reality.”

For the first time, Mr. Duncan telegraphed how tough he plans to be on states that win a waiver. It’s the same kind of talk he engaged in before and during the original Race to the Top competition for states.

“I’m not promising anyone we’re going to bat 1,000. We may grant a waiver to a state that makes its commitments in good faith but doesn’t keep them,” Mr. Duncan said. “And just to be very clear, and just as in Race to the Top, if we need to revoke the waiver six months from now, a year from now, two years from now, because folks can’t deliver on what they said, we’re more than prepared to do that.”

He sounded almost as tough in his stance toward states—such as California—that aren’t applying for waivers and decide to stick it out with the current NCLB requirements. Though he said it wasn’t his first choice, he said he was prepared to withhold Title I money from such states, if needed.

“It is the law, so I think we have an obligation to enforce the law,” Mr. Duncan said. “If it was warranted, ... absolutely,” he said of taking the drastic step of withholding funds.

His chief of staff, Joanne Weiss, who sat in on the interview, added that any money withheld likely would be state administrative money, not the Title I dollars that go directly to benefit students.

In the Race to the Top, which has spurred states to adopt education improvement measures favored by the Obama administration, Mr. Duncan is starting to live up to his tough talk, most recently by putting Hawaii on “high risk” grant status and threatening to take away its $75 million award. At issue is the state’s failure to reach an agreement with its teachers’ union that would create a new teacher-evaluation system, a key component of the state’s Race to the Top plan.

At first, it appeared Hawaii was making progress after the federal department’s threat, as the two sides reached a tentative agreement earlier this month that would have ended the stalemate. Even Mr. Duncan was encouraged, saying in the interview, “Are they in a better place than they were two weeks ago? Sure.”

But in a significant setback, teachers late last week overwhelmingly voted own that contract, making the state’s Race to the Top future uncertain.

“There’s still a lot of hard work to go there. But are they in a better place than they were two weeks ago? Sure,” Mr. Duncan said.

The secretary is also monitoring closely the status of Race to the Top implementation in New York state, which has experienced its own stumbles around teacher evaluations.

“I think the governor came up with a pretty significant plan. ... That makes me hopeful,” said Mr. Duncan, referring to a plan Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, unveiled last week to force districts and teachers’ unions to reach agreement on new evaluation systems.

“But again, I just have no interest in handicapping odds,” Mr. Duncan said. “We just look at results. And the rhetoric and the political whatever, I’m just not interested in.”

Gov. Cuomo’s plan would tie districts’ funding increases to their adoption of new teacher-evaluation systems that align with the state’s Race to the Top plan.

“The equation is simple at the end of the day—no evaluation, no money,” the governor said in his Jan. 17 budget speech, arguing that in attaching those strings to school funding increases, New York would save its $700 million Race to the Top award.

Looking Forward

On the subject of his own future, Secretary Duncan made clear that he wants to stay on for another four years if President Obama is re-elected and wants him to. Since the position was elevated to Cabinet status in 1979, only Richard W. Riley, President Bill Clinton’s education secretary, served for two full presidential terms.

Mr. Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief and the ninth U.S. education secretary, cited all the work that’s left to do, such as bringing down “unacceptable” high school dropout rates and raising the college-graduation rate.

“This work takes a long time. I said repeatedly I desperately wanted to do 10 years in Chicago. I did seven and a half, and literally this was the only job in the world that I would have left Chicago for,” the secretary said. “And I don’t think there’s a job in the world that I would leave this for.

“You gotta stick with this work,” he said, “stick with it for the long, long haul. I know how far we have to go.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Duncan Plans to Give Districts Shot at Winning Race to Top

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