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Arne Duncan on Accountability in ESEA Reauthorization

By Alyson Klein — July 30, 2015 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may only have eighteen months left in office—but they’re critical months when it comes to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The House and Senate each passed bills that take aim at the Obama administration’s K-12 priorities when it comes to teacher evaluation, standards, and more. While the Republican-backed House bill was somewhat of a lost cause, the administration couldn’t secure much of its ask-list in the Senate bill—particularly when it came to beefing up accountability—before it passed with big bipartisan support.

So what will be the administration be pushing for in conference? How far would the bills need to go on accountability to be acceptable to Duncan and the White House? I chatted briefly with Duncan on the phone for some answers. (The basic gist: If you thought Duncan was going to tip his hand on just how much of a rollback of the federal role in K-12 would be acceptable in a conference report, think again.)

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

I know accountability has been really important to you as you head into conference. How far are you willing to compromise on that? Is it the Murphy amendment or nothing? (Quick refresher: Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., introduced an amendment during Senate consideration of the ESEA reauthorization bill that would have increased accountability provisions in the legislation. It failed, 43 to 54, but garnered support from most Democrats in the Senate, and even one Republican, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.)

We don’t draw lines in the sand like that. I just think, again, this is really a civil rights law and the focus on equity has been part and parcel of what this thing has been about and we absolutely need to maintain that. As we go into conference we’re expecting and hoping that people will take this seriously. As you know, the House and the Senate are working very hard. I made a number of calls to senators today actually. And I think people understand that you can’t leave those roots or abdicate that responsibility. And to be clear, I think, because words mean different things to different people, accountability to me is not simply transparency, it’s not simply labeling an issue. While the transparency and the data is important, it’s actually doing something about it. So ... when students are struggling, intervene, when you have the lowest performing schools, take action. So it’s the action part here that I think that is important.

So there’s no piece of that amendment you would be willing to put aside?

We’re just not to that level of detail yet. ... Again we want and need a strong bill that supports students, that protects students, and that holds all of us accountable for student outcomes and making sure that children who are the most vulnerable, who are the most disadvantaged, who historically have had the least educational options get what they need and deserve.

You’ve been a champion of accountability during this debate. But many civil rights groups would argue your administration weakened accountability through waivers by letting states pause school ratings, giving California a double testing waiver, and letting the 85 percent of schools that aren’t focus or priority schools off the hook. So what is your response to those criticisms? Did waivers open the door for weakening accountability?

I think we’ve all tried to work together really hard on this and what you’ve seen through the waiver process is a number of states—and I’ll give the example of Minnesota—that have set the very important and ambitious goal of cutting the achievement gap by half. In a perfect world we’d love to see those achievement gaps disappear tomorrow, but historically you couldn’t have that kind of goal under No Child Left Behind. So it creates some room for folks to innovate, to do the right thing by children, to be focused in this work, and we want to continue to build upon that as we move forward.

Under both bills the Secretary of Education would be prohibited from interfering with standards, evaluations, and more. How might that hamstring you or your successor? What do you expect would happen to the federal role?

This really isn’t about me. What you want is you want whoever the next person ... the next 20 secretaries, you want them to be able to administer and implement the law. So I think there’s some common sense middle ground that we can get to.

How important is it to keep the early childhood education program that’s authorized under the Senate bill, but not the House?

It’s hugely important. Obviously we pushed very hard for that. I actually called Senator Isakson today ... to thank him for working on that. We absolutely need to keep early childhood education in there because learning starts at birth, not at age 5.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks at Seaton Elementary School on Jan. 12 in Washington. --Swikar Patel/Education Week

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