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Q&A: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Talks Waivers, Competitive Grants

By Lauren Camera — September 17, 2014 7 min read
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During his recent three-day, seven-city back-to-school bus tour, U.S. Secretary of Education hopscotched across Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to highlight a number of Obama administration priorities. Many of his stops focused on increasing education and economic opportunities for low-income students and children in communities riddled by drugs, violence, and race issues, whether it’s through public-private partnerships between school districts and various nonprofits and private companies, or with help directly from the federal government.

Duncan, who has pushed the Obama administration’s education agenda with the help of competitive grants and No Child Left Behind waivers, was hyper-focused on the theme of partnership as he crisscrossed the southern states. In the twilight of his tenure as secretary, he seems intent on shifting his role from one of a disrupter, who prods states to adopt tough education policy overhauls, to a collaborator, who helps states through implementation.

You can read more about that shift and his tour here.

Duncan sat down with Education Week on the Georgia freeway between Birmingham and Carrollton for a wide-ranging interview. What follows is an edited transcript.

There’s growing antipathy toward the [Common Core State Standards] as well as an uptick in the number of people who think the common core is a federal initiative. What role do you think the administration has played in that with Race to the Top and [No Child Left Behind Act] waivers?

I think we’ve been pretty clear from that start that what we’ve been in favor of is high standards. We’ve partnered with states that have voluntarily adopted the common core, and we’ve partnered with states that haven’t done that, be it Texas or Virginia or most recently Indiana, Minnesota. So I think the facts of what we’ve actually done speak for themselves.

Allowing [No Child Left Behind Act] waiver states an additional year or potentially more before using student test scores in teacher evaluations in effect means that some states won’t have done this before the end of your tenure as secretary. How difficult was that decision for you, knowing that it effectively wipes out one of your biggest goals?

To be clear, it doesn’t wipe out the opportunity. The big thing this year is next-generation assessments, and we thought, you know, this is a really important year of transition and some people were further ahead, and that’s fine. Other states need a little bit more time, that’s fine. I think what we’re interested in is getting across the finish line. How you get there and the time in which you get there, that’s really determined at the local level. So what we try to do is provide some flexibility, holding very clear to the goal, but recognizing that some people might need a little more time than others. And in a nation of 50 states [with] education being such a decentralized issue, we thought it was the right thing to do.

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from teachers who say, “We embrace accountability. We want this. We need this. We want it to be fair. We want it to be something we understand, and we want to have time to work toward these high standards.” And I thought that was a reasonable point of view and tried to listen to that very closely.

Do you think you did too much, too fast pushing states on evaluations and common core?

There’s lots of critics on all sides. Too much, too fast. There are others saying too slow. That’s just part of the job and, as I’ve said before, I think we all feel a huge sense of urgency that we have far too many young people dropping out. Our graduation rates, while at an all-time high, are nowhere near where they need to be. Far too many of our high school graduates aren’t college- and career-ready.

Having had four years to reflect on competitive grants like Race to the Top, how would you describe the scope and impact of competitive grants in setting the administration’s education agenda and allowing you act on it quickly?

I think federal grants have always been, at [their] high-water mark, 14 or 15 percent of the budget, and 85 percent of our budget is formula-based. So it’s a piece of the strategy. Whether it’s at the state-level with Race to the Top, whether it’s with [Investing in Innovation], which can be at the community level, whether it’s at the neighborhood level with Promise Neighborhoods and other stuff. All we want to do is figure out where there’s real leadership, where there’s real courage, where folks are getting results for young people, and then help them do more of that work.

How are you going to be able to carry out your agenda over the next two years without competitive [grant] cash?

I think so much of what we’re doing now is around implementation. So it’s great to have high standards, we’re thrilled people adopted, it’s great to have next-generation assessments. It’s great to have people thinking differently about teacher evaluation and support. But how we help people implement those ideas is important. I think we have to try and be a good partner and listen. [T]he dollars, I honestly believe, are the least important part of this equation, and the most important part is people’s vision, their courage, their leadership, their willingness to challenge the status quo and do some different things.

As you know, this has been a historically dysfunctional Congress. You’ve always said you’d rather see lawmakers reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act over giving states waivers. But having had some time to reflect on that now, what do you think the impact of waivers has been on Congress’ ability to reauthorize the law? Did it, as many have criticized, take too much pressure off lawmakers?

I absolutely disagree with that. There’s no pressure off of them. Legislators, their job is to legislate, and waivers were a temporary fix that we tried to do on a law that was outdated, that had perverse incentives, that was hurting children and hurting adults. Lawmakers need to step up in a bipartisan way and do their job, and nothing we have done prevents them, prohibits them. That’s a bailout. That’s just absolutely a dishonest excuse, and they need to get past their dysfunction. We stand ready, willing, and able today, tomorrow, next week to work with them to fix the law. It is way outdated, way overdue to be fixed, and they need to hold themselves accountable for doing their job.

Since you were sworn in, public education has undergone a massive amount of change. As with all changes that happen quickly, there’s been a lot of criticism over how the Education Department has prodded that change. Do you think some of those criticisms are fair, and how do you deal with pushback from traditional allies, like teachers unions, which recently called for your resignation?

All pushback is fair. It’s par for the course. But my job every single day is to fight for kids, and I am extraordinarily proud of the progress we’ve made. I’m thrilled high school graduation rates are at an all-time high. I’m thrilled we have so many more students with access to early-childhood education and access to college through Pell grants. But I’m in no way satisfied. And I feel a tremendous sense of urgency that we all have to continue to get better and get better together.

Can you talk a little bit more about your somewhat strained relationship with teachers unions and how it’s shifted over the last six years since you’ve become secretary?

I don’t think it’s a strained relationship at all. We have very, very good conversations. ... [Mr. Duncan said he’d met recently with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and with National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen and former President Dennis Van Roekel.] We don’t agree on everything and have some legitimate difference of opinion, but we’re still working very, very hard together on a number of different things. There’s probably 80 percent of things we agree on, whether it’s more access to early-learning opportunities or having high standards or having the opportunity for more students to go to college or more vocational programs. There is huge agreement there. The media likes to play up where there are areas of disagreement, and I understand that. But lots of places where we agree we’ll keep working, and where we disagree, we disagree. I respect their opinion.

Photo: U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., takes a selfie with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a stop in Birmingham on his back-to-school bus tour last week.—Lauren Camera for Education Week