Arne Duncan Hears District-Level Squawks on Agenda

By Michele McNeil — February 05, 2013 3 min read

As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan continues to articulate his second-term agenda, local school boards are complaining even louder about what they see as the federal government’s overreach into K-12 schools.

During his recent appearance at the National School Boards Association annual legislative conference in Washington, Mr. Duncan made clear that he was not going to walk back from any of his efforts in the first term—such as supporting common standards and teacher evaluations tied to student growth.

He predicted the next couple of years would be “fascinating, difficult, and choppy.”

And he used his Jan. 28 appearance to outline his four priorities for the next four years: more money to expand access to high-quality early education for disadvantaged children; reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act (and following through on the administration’s waivers of provisions of that law); making good on President Barack Obama’s goal to lead the world in college completion by 2020; and passing gun-control legislation in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Yet for the hundreds of local school board members in attendance, this was—by and large—not what they wanted to talk about.

Feisty Session

During a feisty question-and-answer session—punctuated by audible grumblings, even some heckles from the attendees—Mr. Duncan engaged in an unapologetic defense of his first-term agenda.

To the school board member who said “what’s killing us is charter schools,” Mr. Duncan reaffirmed his belief in good public schools, including good charters.

Of the school board member who asked how Mr. Duncan will “support and not undermine” local officials, the secretary demanded specific examples and then tartly replied, “Where we are impeding [progress], we would love to have that conversation.”

Another questioner wanted Mr. Duncan to reconsider his policy on requiring competition for Race to the Top funds, handing out NCLB waivers with strings, and supporting charters.

“Ma’am, I’m not prepared to do that,” he said specifically in reference to waivers without strings, though that reply summed up most of his answers.

The NSBA, based in Alexandria, Va., is particularly frustrated at the amount and breadth of regulation and guidance the department issues outside of congressional authority, in its view, said Thomas J. Gentzel, the group’s executive director, in an interview. For example, the organization is eyeing, but has not yet taken a position on, new guidance on students with disabilities and extracurricular sports.

Overall, Mr. Gentzel said, his members don’t disagree with the secretary’s push for high standards and high expectations.

“I just don’t think we would agree that there’s as much flexibility as he says there is,” he said.

To further drive its point, the group is pushing legislation to further curtail the U.S. Education Department’s powers. For example, its proposal would require the department to seek comment from national education organizations before guidance—which typically doesn’t need public comment—is issued.

Long Shot

The NSBA proposal, which is very broad, is a long shot; it hasn’t been introduced yet.

But the sentiment among some in Congress is certainly there to provide more oversight of the department’s actions. For example, Congress is holding hearings on Feb. 7 on the department’s waiver program, in which 34 states plus the District of Columbia have been awarded considerable flexibility under the NCLB law in exchange for adopting initiatives favored by the Obama administration—such as common standards.

Lawmakers have expressed some concern about how those waivers are playing out. U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education panel, sent a letter to the department in September over concerns that the waivers water down the role of graduation rates in state accountability systems. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has questioned the legality of conditional waivers.

Although Mr. Duncan has suggested that he might extend those waivers to the district level, and not just to states, he did not promote that idea last week.

Not that such an idea is overly welcome either.

Mr. Gentzel said, “The waivers would be from what and at what cost?”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Duncan Gets Earful on How Agenda Plays in Districts


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