Arne Duncan heads to New Zealand, Hawaii with gaggle of staffers

Arne Duncan (By Jacquelyn Martin-Associated Press)
Arne Duncan (By Jacquelyn Martin-Associated Press)

This post has been updated.

My Post colleague Lyndsey Layton asked the Education Department about Secretary Arne Duncan’s trip this week to New Zealand and Hawaii — which will round out his visits to all 50 states during his tenure. Here’s what she learned:

On Tuesday, Duncan jetted off to Wellington, New Zealand, to participate in the International Summit on the Profession of Teaching, a meeting co-sponsored by the Education Department and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as well as several other international education organizations.

Duncan is taking eight staffers on the 8,745-mile trip – enough to field his own basketball team, with a few players on the bench.

The entourage is comprised of three security agents and five aides, including a trip director, his chief of staff, his director of advance, an advance staffer and his director of international affairs.

“In order to help ensure that such a trip is successful, the delegation includes staff members responsible for logistics and security,” Dorie Nolt, Duncan’s press secretary, who is also packing her bags, told Layton.

The 6′ 5″ education secretary gets to sit in business class, along with one security agent, while the rest of his posse flies coach, Nolt said.

Asked how much the overseas trip is costing U.S. taxpayers, Massie Ritsch, acting assistant secretary for communications and outreach, told Layton that the estimated airfare and hotels for both destinations is $67,000.

In a follow-up e-mail, Ritsch wrote that Duncan’s international travel is infrequent as compared to his predecessor — Margaret Spellings, who served as secretary from 2004 to early 2009 – who Ritsch said traveled to as many as 10 countries in a year, including Egypt, Russia, Italy, Spain, Greece, Japan, and Korea.

“In the five years that Arne has been Secretary, he has taken one international trip a year, on average,” Ritsch wrote. “He enjoys the dialogue and learning about, and from, other nations’ education systems, but I can tell you he does not enjoy the travel.” Ritsch noted that while Duncan was on the way to Wellington, the Auckland airport was evacuated due to a fire, so Duncan and other passengers spent the layover waiting in a parking lot.

The gathering in New Zealand is an annual meeting of education leaders from countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the international test of 15-year-olds known as the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA. The United States traditionally performs solidly average among other countries, a result that is cause for hand-wringing by Duncan and other school reformers who say the results show U.S. schools aren’t performing well enough, but that is dismissed by reform critics who note that U.S. students have never done well on international exams. (You can learn here about a controversy over the latest PISA results.)

The annual meetings began in New York in 2011, and rotate among countries. Also attending the New Zealand meeting are Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the two major teachers unions in the United States.

Once that three-day meeting ends, Duncan’s travels continue. On Saturday, he flies to Hawaii — the 50th state he has visited since becoming education secretary in 2009; his 49th state was Utah, in December. In Hawaii, he is scheduled to visit schools and check progress that state has made in spending $75 million in Race to the Top grant money.

 


Duncan also traveled to Haiti last November at the invitation of that country’s education minister to discuss education reform. He was accompanied on that trip by – you guessed it – eight staffers from the Education Department.

Duncan is expected to land back in Washington on April 1.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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