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Advice for Duncan

The Thinker

President-elect Barack Obama with Arne Duncan, the nominee for secretary of education, who has been widely praised for his work as chief executive of the more-than-400,000-student Chicago school system, the nation's third-largest.
President-elect Barack Obama with Arne Duncan, the nominee for secretary of education, who has been widely praised for his work as chief executive of the more-than-400,000-student Chicago school system, the nation's third-largest. (Pool Photo By Ralf-finn Hestoft)
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Monday, January 12, 2009; 12:00 AM

Chicago public schools chief Arne Duncan goes before a Senate committee on Tuesday for a confirmation hearing. To help him set priorities, Post reporter Valerie Strauss asked folks in the education world to provide their best advice on key issues. Here is a response from Michael Dannenberg, senior fellow, New America Foundation; former senior education counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

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I recommend early focus on education finance matters. The administration needs to meet and improve upon campaign promises requiring substantial resources. There are pressing student loan issues and pent-up demands for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) funding. Because the stimulus and budget are being developed now, you have a window of opportunity to address all three areas.

Education should work with Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget to replace the refundable aspect of the President-elect's proposed $4,000 tuition tax credit with a corresponding increase in the Pell Grant. It's arguably better for poor students and the economy, since all Pell money is spent on college costs. The President-elect will still deliver his tax credit to middle class families. And the higher education community will cheer a massive Pell Grant increase on behalf of 6.5 million poor students.

The student loan access issue is more perceived than real. Every family is guaranteed a minimum $57,500 in federal Stafford loans. There is an issue however for some students who currently can't get private loans. The stimulus or budget should enable the Department to finance supplemental loans to families that: (1) exhaust Stafford and PLUS loan eligibility, and (2) attend high quality colleges that agree to cover a substantial portion of default costs, keep tuition growth reasonable, and provide at least consistent levels of institutional need-based aid. Supplemental lending will tamp down student loan crisis headlines and create space to develop long-term, comprehensive policy.

For K-12 education, the budget should include a multi-billion dollar increase conditioned on NCLB's reauthorization and Obama's teacher recruitment, training, and compensation plan. Big funding increases on the table will facilitate passage of difficult policy changes, especially modernizing teacher pay, as long as money is 100 percent guaranteed and multi-year. Lock in a mandatory funding commitment while federal purse strings are loose and your relationship with the President-elect is perceived as exceptionally strong.


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