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Duncan Defends Mayoral Control Before Tough Crowd

By Michele McNeil — April 04, 2009 2 min read

From guest blogger Dakarai I. Aarons:

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told school board members today that courage and political will are needed to bring lasting reform to the nation’s schools.

“We have let adult issues get in the way of what is right for children,” he said.

That courage, Duncan said, will be evidenced by better assessments, more transparent data, a willingness to experiment with other compensation systems for teachers and taking tougher action with underperforming schools.

Duncan was in San Diego to speak the annual conference of the National School Boards Association. The education secretary received no less than three standing ovations from the crowd, which cheered along with much of his stump speech on the Obama Administration’s policies for spending education stimulus funds. The first round of stimulus funding was released this week to states.

The education secretary didn’t shy away from controversial comments earlier this week staking part of his effectiveness as secretary on increasing mayoral control of schools in urban areas, but prefaced his remarks with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment the board members might not agree.

“You are welcome to boo. Please don’t throw any shoes at me,” he said .

Noting the progress made in Chicago, Boston and New York schools since those mayors have gained control of the school systems, Duncan said higher engagement from city mayors and the larger communities are needed to drive real reform.

But the education secretary said his support for mayoral control doesn’t mean he thinks school boards should be obsolete. Making the kind of progress Duncan said Chicago’s schools have made in the last two decades would have been impossible for him (and Paul Vallas before him) and the board there to make with out strong support from the mayor and larger communities, including business and philanthropies.

“It’s a false choice to me to say you need a strong mayor or a strong board,” he said. “A piece of the answer is strong leadership at the top.”

On another note: Duncan’s official Education Department bio says he was “longest-serving big-city education superintendent in the country” at the time of his appointment as secretary, something he’s mentioned in speeches. While Duncan’s seven years as Chicago’s schools CEO is twice the average tenure found in a recent survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, other urban superintendents have served longer.

The longest serving urban superintendent is Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Beverly L. Hall,this year’s National Superintendent of the Year and the focus of a recent Education Week story. Hall and Pat D. Forgione, superintendent of schools in Austin, Tx., both started their jobs in 1999.

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