Attorney General Loretta Lynch, right, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan listen to inmate Alphonso Coates, center foreground, talk about his experiences while enrolled in an education program at a prison on July, 31, 2015 in Jessup, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan thinks the chances that Congress will replace No Child Left Behind, the main K-12 federal education law now eight years overdue for revision, took a nosedive with House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to retire.

Before Boehner announced that he will leave Congress at the end of October, the chances for passage of a new law were “maybe 50-50,” Duncan said Wednesday after delivering a speech at the National Press Club. “Now it’s probably worse, not better, very disappointing. I’d be happy to be proven wrong there. I hope we can get there. I think that task, that journey, just got harder in the past week.”

His comments followed a speech in which Duncan called on states and localities to sharply reduce the incarceration of non-violent offenders and use an estimated $15 billion in savings to increase salaries for teachers, particularly those who teach in high poverty schools.

Duncan spoke in personal terms about the country’s need to correct what he termed an unfair system that robs poor, minority children of the resources they need and then funnels a disproportionate number from classrooms into jail cells.

“Our nation’s public schools are majority minority,” Duncan said after his speech. “It’s a watershed moment in our nation’s history and, guess what? We’re not going back the other way. This isn’t just the right thing to do for the black community ... this is the right thing to do for our country.”

During the Q and A portion of his appearance, Duncan argued that much of the inequity in public schools stems from the way schools are funded.

“Our K-12 system is basically funded at the local level,” he said, noting that the federal government pays about 8 percent to 10 percent of costs for primary and secondary education. “We are so property tax-based throughout the nation, in far too many places, the children of wealthy get far more spent on them than the children of the poor. Until we get uncomfortable with that, we’re going to continue to have huge disparities.”

“As long as children in Ferguson (Mo.) are getting less than half the money as children in wealthier communties, we’re going to have a lot of challenges, and we’re going to leave a lot of talent on the sidelines,” he said.

Money isn’t everything, Duncan said. “But it’s impossible to justify children in poor communities getting half the money of children in wealthy communities,” he said. “It’s criminal. ... And it’s not just a year. Think about the 13-year impact of having less.”

Teacher salaries need to rise, especially in order to attract good educators to high poverty schools, he said.

“Every teaching job is not created equally,” Duncan said. “A teacher in Anacostia is a very different job than teaching in Northwest D.C. ... No teaching job is ever easy, but there are very, very different degrees of difficulty.”

Salaries in the most challenging schools should be high enough to reward the teachers who choose to work there, and attract others to come, he said.

Duncan said the most extreme example he’d seen was on a Native American reservation, where all the teachers were either recruits from Teach for America or they had been imported from the Phillipines.
“They could not find American teachers, American born, to work on that reservation,” Duncan said. “I think compensation has to be on the table in a different way.”

Asked about the fact that during the most recent Republican presidential debate, there wasn’t a single mention of education during the three-hour event, Duncan said voters have to demand that politicians address the issue.

“I would love the media to ask four questions: ‘What are you doing to increase investment in early childhood education? What are you doing to reduce high school dropout rates? What are you doing to increase high school graduation rates? What’s your plan to increase college graduation rates?”

“We should vote on those things,” Duncan said. “Because we focus on the silly stuff, it gives politicians a pass. I don’t blame them. I blame us voters.”