A spokesman for McDonnell later said the governor shares the desire to expand preschool but objects to a new tax. Virginia’s program, also funded by the state lottery, currently serves about 16 percent of the 4-year-olds who live in the state.
In the cream-and-green gymnasium of the Henrico preschool, Duncan was flanked by executives from two major Virginia employers — Dominion Resources and Capital One — as well as a lieutenant colonel from the Army and a bishop from the United Methodist Church. All made the case for expanded preschool. Duncan intends to replicate that lineup — faith leaders, military officials, business executives — at all his appearances, to drive home the message that preschool has broad support.
“Lots of folks will tell you that you can’t get anything done in Washington,” Duncan said to the community leaders gathered in the Henrico gym. “If we are ever able to break through, what better issue than early childhood education? I think Washington will listen. If we come together, I think we honestly have a chance to make history.”
Four years ago, Duncan lucked into a windfall — $4.3 billion in stimulus funds from Congress to spend, largely without strings. The money was used to create Race to the Top, a nationwide competition in which cash-strapped states had to agree to adopt Obama’s favored education reforms in order to compete for a grant.
Along with money, Duncan had another powerful tool — an offer to free states from the punitive aspects of No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era federal education law, as long as they embraced Obama’s education reforms. Those included creating charter schools, evaluating teachers in part based on student test scores and adopting new academic standards.
Duncan’s first-term accomplishments make him arguably the most influential secretary in the education department’s short history and were a bipartisan bright spot for an administration struggling to govern amid bitter divisions.
Now, the stimulus money has been spent. Most states that sought waivers from No Child Left Behind have them. And Duncan’s bag of incentives is as empty as a classroom cubby on the last day of school.
All that remains are his determination and skills as a salesman.
“I’m in this for the long haul,” he said, as his SUV sped along a highway in Georgia.