Updating the federal law that governs K-12 education moved into higher gear this week with Education Secretary Arne Duncan laying out a few markers in a major policy speech. He called for more funding for Pre-K and kids at risk, more resources for teachers and schools, a continuing commitment to high standards, and no retreat from accountability. Duncan made clear that the enthusiasm for “local control” should not come at the expense of transparency or accountability. Annual testing is still needed, as is federal oversight. “Equal educational opportunity is a national priority, and a national responsibility,” he said.
In his remarks (video below), he said that the President’s FY 2016 budget will seek an additional $2.8 billion in education funding for students at risk and for early learning programs. The speech referenced President Lyndon Johnson, who in 1965 signed the original education K-12 law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), calling it the most far-reaching law he would ever sign. He also referenced Senator Robert F. Kennedy and teachers union leader Albert Shanker on the importance of transparency and accountability. Drawing a link between the civil rights movement and education, Duncan quoted Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, who said, "If we don't stand up for children, then we don't stand up for much." He shared a compelling personal story about a high school student he tutored who was on the honor roll with a "B" average but was reading at a 2nd or 3rd grade level.
The educational system had failed him. But the buck stopped nowhere. As a nation, we owe our young people better. Let's not walk away from our responsibilities.
Finally, while affirming the Obama administration’s commitment to flexibility, Duncan took direct aim at Republican efforts to devolve more and more decision-making authority to states, asking in a series of questions whether serious efforts to strengthen and improve public education should be optional.
Will we work together to ensure that every single child has high expectations for learning that will engage, challenge, and prepare him or her for college, careers, and life? Or is that optional? Will we work together to ensure every parent’s right to know every year how much progress her child is making in school? Or is that optional? Will we work together to ensure that every public school makes a real priority of the educational progress of minority students, those living in poverty, those with disabilities, those learning English, and other groups that have struggled in school in the past? Should enduring achievement gaps require action? Or is that optional? What about schools where, year after year, huge numbers of students drop out or never learn to read? Do families have the right to expect that leaders will put in place meaningful supports and a real plan for improvement? Or is that optional? Will we work together to expand access to high-quality preschool, so students don't start out behind? Or is that optional?
He closed with a reference to President George W. Bush, who signed into law No Child Left Behind (the current incarnation of ESEA).
This country can’t afford to replace “the fierce urgency of now” with the soft bigotry of “It’s optional.”
All in all, the speech was a bold shot across the bow of the Republicans intent on putting states’ rights ahead of our children’s moral rights to a quality education. Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, who heads the Senate Committee working on the rewrite, is expected to release a draft bill later this week. We’ll see if Duncan’s message gets through.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with