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Arne Duncan Emphasizes Civil Rights, Equity on ESEA’s 50th Anniversary

By Alyson Klein — April 09, 2015 4 min read
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Washington, D.C.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to hit on one of his all-time favorite themes: the role education plays in bolstering civil rights and equity of access to opportunity.

Duncan kicked off his remarks at a Thursday event with a big, sentimental pitch on the power of early-childhood education, which has been the Obama administration’s number one priority in its second term (but not as much in its first term when Duncan & Co. had more than $5 billion in stimulus money and wide discretion on how to use it).

Duncan spoke at the Marthin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library in downtown Washington, next to a picture of a Minneapolis 4-year-old named Star Brown. She turned out to be the um, “star” of the speech.

Although Star’s family is struggling economically, she had the opportunity to attend a high-quality early-childhood education program, Duncan said. And very early on, her teachers realized she couldn’t say her own name. It wasn’t “first day jitters,” it was a severe speech delay. Star got early-intervention services and is ready to start kindergarten next year, Duncan said.

“Star’s story, at its heart is not just about overcoming. At its heart, it’s about opportunity made real,” Duncan said. “The fight for educational opportunity and the fight for civil rights always have been and always will be inextricably linked.”

He added, “any new law must support an expansion of early learning.”

So what does this have to do with Congress and an ESEA reauthorization? For now, there are no new resources in a bill to rewrite the law introduced earlier this week by a bipartisan duo, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murry, D-Wash., the chairman and the top Democrat on the education committee.

But many folks expect there will be in an amendment in committee to add new preschool competitive grants to the bill (think something along the lines of the Preschool Development Grant program) and that the amendment will pass.

The rest of Duncan’s speech read like a “Greatest Hits” edition of his points on an ESEA rewrite. Without mentioning it by name, he talked about the importance of the administration’s Investing in Innovation program, which helps districts and nonprofits partner to try out or expand promising ideas for improving student outcomes. He said the department has received more than 4,000 applications for i3 grants, but has only been able to finance about 150.

The Obama administration would really like to see i3 officially enshrined in the next edition of the ESEA—but it’s not in the Senate bill for now (and probably won’t be anytime soon).

And the education secretary hit on another theme: equitable teacher distribution, a huge priority for civil rights organizations. A new ESEA should offer “more to support our teachers and ensure that great teachers are teaching where they are needed most,” Duncan said. (There’s some updated language in the Alexander-Murray bill on equitable distribution of teachers, and the administration is working on it already, through a separate “50-state” strategy.)

Duncan also said the legislation should call for “action” in improving state’s lowest-performing schools. (Some would argue it already does. Under the bill, districts would get resources to help an unspecified number of struggling schools improve. And states would be tasked with keeping an eye on those schools and stepping in when students aren’t improving fast enough. But there’s no clear, strong role for the feds on turnarounds, a big departure from the Obama approach in the School Improvement Grant program.)

Duncan also had kind words for Alexander and Murray. And he said a rewritten law “must be bipartisan in both the House and Senate.” (Some political background: The House already pulled its bill because it wasn’t conservative enough for some Republicans and had no support from the other side of the aisle. It’s unclear if leaders there would like to put something closer to the Alexander-Murray compromise on the floor, in the hopes of attracting Democrats.)

Flashback: Longtime Politics K-12 readers may remember that back in 2011, another bipartisan pair, former Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., introduced another ESEA rewrite bill that was actually much stronger on accountability and turnarounds than the Alexander-Murray approach, plus it kept i3 in place. (Not to mention the administration’s other signature program, Race to the Top, which even Duncan has pretty much stopped mentioning by name.)

But the administration didn’t exactly knock itself out trying to get that bill enacted—instead it criticized the lack of a mandate on teacher evaluation through test scores.

So is Duncan sorry he wasn’t more supportive back in 2011? Does he think the Alexander-Murray compromise is the best that Congress and the administration can do at this point when it comes to accountability?

Duncan said there’s plenty he’d like to change about the bill in a perfect world, but he’s glad to see lawmakers at least working in a “good faith,” bipartisan way.

“We’ll see where we end up,” he told reporters.

But it sounds like Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who was also at the event, would like to see a much stronger role in the bill for the feds in looking out for poor and minority kids.

“There’s a concern about the lack of meaningful accountability provisions in the Senate bill,” he said. “It’s not enough to diagnose the problem. ... That’s why we think an enhanced federal role is necessary. ... Diagnosing the problem is one thing. Addressing it is something else.”

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