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As Obama is Nominated, Duncan Speech Finesses Touchy Issues

By Alyson Klein — September 06, 2012 5 min read
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Charlotte, N.C.

On the night President Barack Obama’s name was formally placed in nomination for re-election, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used his high-profile Democratic convention speech to tout the president’s work to avert teacher layoffs and revamp student loans.

But the education secretary steered clear of mentioning charter schools expansion, teacher evaluation, and aggressive school turnaround—policies at the heart of the Obama administration’s agenda during Duncan’s tenure as secretary.

Those ideas aren’t so popular with some in the Democratic base, including many teachers. But Duncan, who has been lauded as a visionary leader by the self-described “reformer” wing of the Democratic Party, and attacked as out-of-touch by other Democrats, used his Wednesday night political moment to express Obama’s appreciation for teachers. [UPDATE: In an interview later, Duncan noted that he only had three minutes to speak and couldn’t hit on every topic. He disagreed with idea that he was shying away from the more controversial aspects of his tenure.]

The president “believes teachers must be respected and paid like the professionals they are,” he said during his speech. “No teacher should have to teach to the test.”

That line came as a big surprise to Janet Payne, a teacher from Fredericksburg, Va., and a delegate here.

“I nearly came up out of my chair,” she said. The Obama administration has encouraged states to tie teacher evaluation in part to student achievement on tests, and steered $360 million to developing new assessments to go along with standards adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.

Duncan has said in other speeches that those new tests would measure higher-order thinking skills, but Payne doesn’t seem to buy into that idea.

“They think the only way you’re going to have good teachers is to have a right and wrong answer test,” she said of Duncan.

But the speech played much better with other educators in the audience.

Maryke Alburg, a middle school social studies teacher from Patterson, N.J., said Duncan—and other Democrats throughout the week—were right to emphasize the need to protect Pell Grants, which help low-income students attend college, from cuts.

Alburg knows the benefits of Pell Grants—she received one years ago, which allowed her to attend Rutgers University, in New Jersey.

“People don’t realize that Pell Grants aren’t just an expense for taxpayers, they’re what makes the country go,” said Alburg. When she had college ambitions, “that was the only way I was going.”

Race to the Top

Duncan left unmentioned the Obama administration’s signature K-12 initiative: the Race to the Top program, which provides competitive grants to states for education redesign efforts.

That fell on Wednesday night to former North Carolina Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, whose state was one of a dozen that ended up in the Race to the Top winner’s circle.

“The Race to the Top program has done more to ‘spur us’ to improve our public schools than anything we’ve ever done as a nation,” Hunt said. (Race to the Top also made an appearance in a campaign video Tuesday, as did the School Improvement Grant program.)

Duncan also repeated his warnings that the budget proposed by Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman and GOP vice-presidential nominee, could lead to big cuts in education spending.

“Under the Romney-Ryan budget, education would be cut by as much as 20 percent,” Duncan told the crowd here. He estimated that the cuts could mean 200,000 fewer children in Head Start, an early childhood program for the disadvantaged.

The Ryan budget—the subject of a slew of Obama campaign commercials—would cut domestic discretionary spending, the broad category that includes education, by almost 20 percent, which is sure to put major downward pressure on K-12 spending. But it’s not clear exactly how it would affect individual education programs, or state implementation of programs like Head Start. UPDATE: Duncan noted in an interview that Republicans’ “deafening silence” on how the Ryan budget would impact K-12 doesn’t seem to bode well for education programs, and challenged the Romney camp to come out with more specific numbers.

Clearly, some in the crowd are worried about potential reductions.

Michael J. Crossey, a delegate who is the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said that cuts to K-12 in his state had proved harmful, and unpopular. In pledging to cut the size of government at the federal level, Republicans were laying out a plan to bring the same kind pain to other states, said Crossey, whose union has 187,000 members.

“If we elect Mitt Romney, we’re going to see that all over the country,” Crossey said.

Education-Themed Speeches

Duncan’s speech was one of a trio at the beginning of a night capped by an address from former President Bill Clinton, who lauded the administration’s work on college access. (Obama was formally nominated shortly after midnight during a roll call of state delegations.)

In her speech to delegates, Denise Juneau, the state chief of Montana, emphasized Obama’s role in helping the neediest children get ahead.

“President Obama knows that education is the best investment an individual can make in themselves,” she said. “For some students, school is the only place where they get a hot meal and a warm hug. Teachers are sometimes the only ones who tell our children they can go from an Indian reservation to the Ivy League.” (Juneau’s state is one of just a handful that hasn’t taken the administration up on its plan to offer waivers from key mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.)

The DREAM Act, which would give undocumented immigrants who come to the United States as children a path to citizenship, also made an appearance on the floor. Benita Veliz, an activist from San Antonio, applauded President Obama for his support of the legislation, which has failed to gain support in Congress.

“I’ve had to live my entire life knowing I could be deported just because of the way I came here,” she said.

Assistant Editor Sean Cavanagh and Staff Writer Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this report.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 5. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

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