President Obama talks to the media with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a meeting with the Council of the Great City Schools Leadership on March 16 in Washington. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the nation’s main federal education law, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Thursday that Congress needs to craft a modern version that stays true to the law’s intent: to create equal educational opportunity for all children.

Speaking beside a mural of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the District’s main library, which bears King’s name, Duncan said he was heartened by a bipartisan plan to upgrade the law written by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education panel, and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.).

“I’m just glad we have a Republican and a Democrat who are actually talking and trying to work together,” Duncan said. “There’s a long way to go in the process, and we don’t know whether it will lead to anything or collapse at some point. But I’ve said for six years that we need a bill for the country.”

Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, one of several key pieces of civil rights legislation passed by Congress. The law was designed largely as a way to create educational opportunities for disadvantaged children by sending federal dollars to states to help pay the cost of educating disadvantaged children, students with disabilities and English learners.

It has been updated several times, most recently in 2002 when President George W. Bush signed the latest version, known as No Child Left Behind.

But that version was due for reauthorization in 2007, and several attempts have fallen apart amid partisan debates in Congress about the appropriate role of the federal government in local schools.

Observers say the current effort by Alexander and Murray stands the best chance in years. The Senate education committee is scheduled to take up the bipartisan proposal April 14, and Alexander hopes to bring it to the full Senate for a vote before Memorial Day. Efforts to pass a bill in the House are less clear; a GOP bill was passed by committee on a party line vote but the legislation was pulled off the House floor mid-debate in February after complaints by conservatives that it didn’t go far enough to scale back federal oversight of schools.

Duncan was generally positive about the Alexander-Murray bill but said the Obama administration wants a final law to expand early childhood education and to place stronger demands on states to improve their worst-performing schools, among other things.

“The goal is not just to acknowledge a problem, to identify a problem, but to do something about it,” Duncan said. “One of the things we’ve done at the federal level is to challenge states and districts to take on the lowest-performing schools. The fact that the high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, the fact that African American dropout rates have been cut by 45 percent and Latino dropout rates have been cut by half, that would not have happened” without pressure from the federal government.

The Alexander-Murray bill is striking in its attempt to shrink the authority of the U.S. Department of Education, transferring power over schools from the federal government back to the states.

Duncan has been arguably the most influential education secretary since the department was created in 1979, thanks to two things — the $4.3 billion he distributed through his Race to the Top competitive grant program and the waivers issued to states to free them from the most onerous aspects of No Child Left Behind as the country waited for Congress to rewrite the law. In both cases, states had to embrace education policies favored by Duncan to win a grant or waiver.

He said Thursday that he never intended to amass power.

“We never asked for all this,” he said. “We simply stepped into a void of Congress’s dysfunction. The goal is never to have power, we’ve actually been trying to give it away for a long time [by urging Congress to update the law]. The goal is to have students learn . . . and if we can have a bill that helps students learn, that scales what’s working and accelerates the pace of progress, that would be fantastic.”