U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used his annual back-to-school bus tour last week to prod Congress to invest in early education and tout the Obama administration’s latest fix to the notoriously mind-boggling federal financial aid process.
But along the way, he was dogged by questions about some of his administration’s controversial moves on K-12: championing teacher evaluations tied to student performance, expanding charter schools, and of course, standardized testing.
The secretary’s sixth annual trek—which sought to touch on every part of the education spectrum, from early childhood to career development—took Duncan through Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania.
He kicked off the five-day tour in Iowa, where he and President Barack Obama held an event at a high school in Des Moines that touched on the topic of college aid.
The federal government has already taken some of the pain out of completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, by giving students the chance to have a portion of their forms filled out automatically, and using their families’ tax information already on file at the Internal Revenue Service.
But that hasn’t solved the whole problem, in part because students now begin filling out financial-aid forms in January, when not everyone has done their taxes for the year. The White House wants to allow students to get started much sooner, beginning in October, and to use tax information from the year before to automatically fill out the form.
The change, which will kick in as of October 2016, will likely mean that more students will be eligible for Pell Grants and other assistance. In fact, the White House estimates that 2 million current college students could have had access to Pell Grants—which help low-income students pay for college—but didn’t because they never filed the proper forms.
Duncan told reporters in a conference call last week that he believes the new rules will increase financial aid and college access for “literally hundreds of thousands” more students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds and those who are the first in their families to go to college. Those students, he said, have long experienced the 108-question FAFSA as a “barrier to financial aid.”
“This shift in the time frame may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a huge deal,” he said. It will “open the door to a new world of opportunity” for many students and families “who historically have been locked out.”
Handing out more federal aid to students, however, comes with a price tag, though Duncan said that the cost would be “very, very minor.” When pressed, he said the government projects that the change would cost about 1 percent of the total annual cost of the Pell Grant program, which was an estimated $31.4 billion in fiscal year 2015.
Top Republicans in Congress on education policy, including Rep. John Kline of Minnesota and Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, say the policy goes in the right direction, but they worry that the administration doesn’t have a “responsible” plan to cover the cost.
But at a bus tour stop at Purdue University in West Lafeyette, Ind., Duncan got kudos from Ted Malone, the school’s executive director of the division of financial aid. The change “is going to revolutionize our ability to serve students, especially low-income students,” Malone said.
That day of the tour—Sept. 16—also included a stop at the, a pioneer in helping students with disabilities of all sorts transition to and succeed in higher education.
The program started in 1948, with barely any budget, founder Tim Nugent said in an interview. And from early on, sports were a big part of the picture, because athletics give students with special needs a chance to showcase what they can do. (Nugent also helped found the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, and the sport is still big at the university.)
These days, the university offers a one-stop shop for everyone from disabled veterans to students who have difficulty concentrating on their exams and need to take tests in a cubicle. And it likes to pair students who need help with those who want to go on to become special education teachers and health professionals.
“The university is a model, it is an absolute model,” Duncan said.
The stop wasn’t just about higher education, though. Local reporters pressed Duncan on the state’s sluggish preliminary performance on a new test aligned to the common core, by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.
“It actually doesn’t concern me at all. What Illinois and many other states are doing is finally telling the truth. For far too long, [in] far too many states including Illinois, standards were dummied down,” Duncan said. “This is going to be a hard, rocky, bumpy couple of years, and that’s just the way things are.”
Duncan also stressed the need for more resources for early-childhood education, a key message point as the administration tries to prod Congress to include state grants for preschool in a renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
That evening, at a roundtable with students in Indianapolis, Duncan was listening to a group of students from across the district talk about how community service has helped shape their educations when he was interrupted by a pair of protesting parents, shouting “Opt out!” and “Stop privatizing education!”
Both women were ushered out of the event.
Delena Ivey, one of the mothers who was escorted out, said she has two children in the district and that she’s angry about greater reliance on charter schools. Charters have exploded in Indianapolis in recent years, largely thanks to the current mayor, Greg Ballard, a Republican, and the previous one, Bart Peterson, a Democrat. But Duncan has been a big booster of charters nationally.
Ivey is also upset that her children, “spend so much time in test prep” at the expense of art and physical education.
Duncan said his events are occasionally interrupted by critics.”Sometimes it happens,” he said. “It’s totally fine. I’d be happy to have that conversation.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2015 edition of Education Week as From Pre-K to Higher Ed., Duncan Touts Priorities on Bus Tour