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Arne Duncan: Part of Federal K-12 Role Is Protecting Kids From ‘Bad Things’

By Alyson Klein — January 04, 2017 3 min read
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Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Wednesday that a big part of the federal role in education is protecting kids from “bad things, and unfortunately we have to do a lot of that.”

“It’s no secret that bullying and harassment is up right now. [President-elect Donald] Trump has, I’m not blaming him, but Trump has unleashed a lot of bad things in our schools that I don’t think we can afford to turn a blind eye to,” Duncan said at a forum at the Brookings Institute on the future of the federal role in K-12 education.

He talked about the efforts of the office for civil rights during the Obama years to stand up for students in special education, English-language learners, students who have been victims of sexual assault, and more.

Duncan’s comments come amid worries by some advocates that the incoming Trump administration won’t be as aggressive as the Obama administration has been in standing up for students’ civil rights. (Duncan didn’t explicitly say that he shared those concerns.)

Duncan, who is currently working as a managing partner at the Emerson Collective, also had some advice for his would-be successor, Betsy DeVos, a school choice advocate. She should set a goal of bringing graduation rates to 90 percent, dramatically expanding access to early-childhood education, and keeping standards high, he said.

If those goals sound familiar, that’s because they’re the same goals that Duncan himself championed. And he got a lot of criticism for pushing too much on states too quickly, prodding states to roll out new test-based evaluations for teachers at exactly the same time they were putting in place higher standards, new assessments, and new strategies for turning around the lowest-performing schools.

Duncan said he doesn’t regret that. “Much of the pushback on many issues we got is that we were going too fast,” he said. “My critique is that all of us are going too slow. ... Those things were difficult. I don’t apologize for any of them.”

The next administration may use federal muscle for a different purposes: a big expansion of school choice.

But it’s not clear yet what that will look like.

Lindsay Fryer, a vice president at the Penn Hill Group, a government relations organization in Washington, who served as one of the lead negotiators for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., when Congress crafted the Every Student Succeeds Act, said on the same panel that are a lot things that the Trump administration could do to push its school choice agenda beyond the big expansion of vouchers the president-elect pitched on the campaign trail, which might be a tough sell on Capitol Hill.

For instance, she said, the administration could pitch tax-credits for scholarships, hike funding for charter schools, or use existing programs, like the Education Innovation and Research program to help push school choice. (More from Andrew on that here).

What’s more, there are a host of provisions in ESSA that the new administration could focus on to encourage states and districts to offer students more choice, including an option to allow kids in low-performing schools to transfer to a better public school. (More here.)

And, she said, she’d caution the Trump administration against any policies that require states to embrace school choice or vouchers—it should be up to local leaders to move forward, with federal encouragement.

Gerard Robinson, who recently stepped down from Trump’s transition team and also spoke at the event, counts himself as a fan of school choice. But he doesn’t think vouchers are going to be best for everyone—and rural districts may find it especially tough to make use of them. (We wrote about this issue here.)

In fact, a lot of the working class white voters who supported Trump live in “choice deserts,” said Robinson, who is a former Florida state chief. “We have to keep that in mind.” Like Fryer, he recommended the new administration think beyond vouchers in furthering its school choice agenda, to things like magnet schools.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is interviewed at his office in Washington on Jan. 17. (Stephen Voss for Education Week)

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