Every Student Succeeds Act

Arne Duncan Floats Fixes for K-12 Aid

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 26, 2016 4 min read
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The way many schools are funded is not only unfair to disadvantaged students, but also often lacks a clear basis in research and is unreasonably “opaque” for parents and community members, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last week in his first public return to the nation’s capital.

Speaking at an Edunomics Lab event on school finance at Georgetown University, Duncan said there should be more public input into K-12 spending decisions, and that local flexibility in funding should be matched by robust transparency and clear accountability.

“If we’re going to ask taxpayers for another nickel, we have to be getting results,” Duncan said at the event, in which state and local leaders also discussed the shifting landscape for K-12 spending decisions.

“The grand bargain is more money for better results,” said Duncan, who stepped down in December after nearly seven years as President Barack Obama’s education secretary.

Duncan also defended the U.S. Department of Education’s push to create relatively strong regulations to govern school finance in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

He portrayed ESSA, the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, as a law that in some cases creates more risk for school accountability and students, but also offers opportunities. And he downplayed his controversial remarks at the end of last year in which he said the department’s lawyers would be able to outfox Congress on ESSA implementation.

Stark Gaps

In a public conversation with Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, Duncan stressed that school funding gaps between wealthy and non-wealthy schools persist despite federal law, and are quite stark. Two-thirds of students in Title I schools have less money spent on them, per pupil, than their non-Title I counterparts in the same districts, Duncan noted.

And a great deal of money in education is spent on things with little basis in research, he said.

Duncan said such resource imbalances and mistakes ultimately mean that in places like his hometown of Chicago, where he now works for the Emerson Collective as a managing partner serving disconnected youths, young men in particular are largely left without job or educational prospects and turn to crime.

The goal, he said, is to move beyond numbers and help create narratives about why spending decisions matter, and to make the issue less complicated so that parents and others can take action in their local schools. That also means the federal government doesn’t have to micromanage school spending, something Duncan stressed he doesn’t like.

“This should be a public dialogue,” Duncan said of school finance decisions. “I think it makes us smarter. I think it builds trust. I think it makes it more publicly accountable.”

But Duncan also lamented that education is not a high voter priority.

“The fact that no one votes on these issues, every politician gets a pass,” he said.

Fighting Words

Duncan made waves on his way out the door as secretary by saying that his department’s lawyers would be able to win a tug of war with Congress over the agency’s regulatory authority in ESSA.

He was asked at the forum by Michael J. Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute whether he wanted to apologize for his remark to Politico last year after ESSA passed that “candidly, our lawyers are much smarter than many of the folks who were working on this bill,” and whetherhe thought it damaged ESSA negotiations. Duncan responded that he would be “happy to apologize.”

But he also scorned the idea that politicians were so turned off by his remark that it hurt the climate in Washington for the new law, saying: “My one sentence is that important? Are you kidding me?”

In that same vein, Duncan defended the Education Department’s push in ESSA regulatory negotiations to include a requirement that districts’ per-student spending levels in Title I schools must equal or exceed the average per-pupil spending in their in non-Title I schools. State and local officials have resisted that idea, but it’s within the department’s rights, he said, to ensure that federal money ultimately is spent on top of, and is not supplanting, state and local money.

Members of the ESSA regulatory-negotiations committee ultimately failed to reach a consensus on such supplement-not-supplant language in meetings last week, leaving the department free to write its own regulations for that requirement. However, Congress could ultimately overturn those department regulations.

On ESSA , the former secretary portrayed the law—the latest version of the Great Society-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act—as containing more good than bad.

“There are fewer, maybe, guardrails, in the law. That’s a risk,” Duncan said, but there are also chances for states and districts to innovate, and for different constituencies to get involved.

Others at the event stressed that it might be hard to change the mindset of state and local leaders when it comes to considering how to finance schools more effectively.

Former Maine schools chief Stephen Bowen, now the strategic-initiative director for innovation at the Council of Chief State School Officers, said in his experience many state lawmakers are primarily interested in figuring out how much their local districts get in annual education budgets, and not in how that money can aid student achievement.

And even many local school boards don’t have a full grasp of their power over spending decisions, said Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.

Still, Roza said she was pleased about the new reporting requirements in ESSA; among them is a provision that per-pupil spending at the individual school and district level must be published by states.

“The next five years are going to be a bonanza of finance data,” Roza said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as Duncan Floats Fixes for K-12 Aid

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