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Education Secretary Arne Duncan's School Reform Opportunity

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By David S. Broder
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Arne Duncan has an opportunity to do more for a generation of youngsters than any education secretary in history, and my strong sense is that he is going to make the most of it.

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The 44-year-old former Chicago public schools superintendent, a basketball buddy of President Obama's, has been handed a fortune -- $100 billion or more in the economic stimulus bill -- not imagined by any of his predecessors since the department was created by Jimmy Carter.

Most of that money will go directly to states and school districts to help them avoid the teacher layoffs and college tuition hikes this sickening economic slump is forcing on almost everyone. When the nation's governors met in Washington two weeks ago, I heard near-universal gratitude from Republicans as well as Democrats that this help is on the way. Duncan says that his goal is to start moving the money out of Washington in 30 to 45 days, because he knows how badly it is needed from coast to coast.

But then, he says, in phase two he will have a chance to use the remainder of his allocation -- probably $15 billion or more -- to begin leveraging the school reforms that could lift the prospects for an entire generation of kids.

We have had good education secretaries before in administrations of both parties, including Duncan's predecessor in the Bush administration, Margaret Spellings. But she, like most of the others, was hemmed in by a lack of funding and restrictions imposed by Congress. Duncan is the first secretary to combine hands-on experience in turning around a major school system and a checkbook that will compel attention for his ideas.

What he wants to do with this fortuitous opportunity, he said during a visit to The Post last week, is less to promote his own or President Obama's prescriptions for the schools than to put his considerable influence and bankroll behind one of the most promising notions in American education: a state-level compact to transform the schools.

Ever since the "standards revolution" began two decades ago, when the first President Bush was in office, the traditional American preference for local control of the schools has blocked serious consideration of the kind of national education standards most other advanced countries employ. When the second President Bush passed his landmark education bill, No Child Left Behind, he said that each state should decide for itself what constituted "competence" in its high school graduates.

Increasingly, as Duncan said, employers, colleges and students themselves have come to realize that in a competitive world economy, having 50 different standards consigns many youngsters to failure.

Obama could confront the issue head-on, but that would inevitably trigger a huge political and philosophical battle. In recent years, a variety of power centers, including the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association and, most notably, Achieve, a business-backed school reform group, have been encouraging a movement among the states to set uniform high standards for themselves without dictation from Washington.

That is the trend Duncan hopes to spur to the level of transformation. He said he plans to offer competitive grants to eight, 10 or 12 states that are ready to develop world-class standards for their schools -- and measure progress in meeting them.

There's much more to it than that, of course: a readiness to support experiments in longer school days, longer school years, improvements in recruiting and paying teachers -- and a method to weed out the duds, as Duncan did controversially in Chicago.

Does he have the backbone to fight this battle against all the forces protecting the status quo? I think so. He came to his passion for education through his mother, a University of Chicago faculty wife who hauled her young children along to the tutoring academy that she started and still runs in dirt-poor areas of Chicago's South Side.

Duncan speaks enthusiastically about some of the success stories that began there and scornfully of those who use the poverty of students as an excuse for schools that fail to teach.

He has the background and motivation to help change the education system, and, thanks to this awful recession, he has the resources as well.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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