Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may well be this administration's MVP before all is said and done.
He has a track record as superintendent of Chicago schools of producing some real progress -- and getting the teachers union to buy into some previously controversial topics like merit pay. In running the nation's education bureaucracy, he displays a buoyant idealism that seems too good to be true. Except, it's sincere. But what makes Duncan very dangerous is that he's a man with a plan. If he is successful in his plan, he may end up doing what President George W. Bush tried to do with education -- except in reverse.
Bush hoped that No Child Left Behind -- the primary education accountability program he helped craft with Ted Kennedy eight years ago -- would be the legislative wedge that would steal the education issue away from Democrats. Or at least neutralize it in favor of Republicans.
It didn't quite work out that way. Instead, while it seemed to produce some improvements, it also created a significant bipartisan opposition. Democrats felt that it forced too much of a testing culture -- and didn't provide enough financial resources (when have Democrats ever felt that there was enough financial resources for a domestic program?). Republicans felt that there was too much federal control over what should be state matters.
Duncan has sent out word across the country that the stimulus money reserved for education -- close to $100 billion -- districts comes with some very significant strings. States will have to provide the education department with some hard info:
Schools must provide student's math and reading scores from local tests, as well as from the National Assessment of Education Progress, a federal test that is more difficult.
States must submit the number of schools declared failing under federal law that have demonstrated student achievement gains within the last three years.
They'll also have to demonstrate just how many students graduate and go on to complete at least a year’s worth of college credit.
Gathering the new information, Duncan’s aides said, is part of a strategy to shine a spotlight on school systems that are not working well and drive their improvement.
This education money is part of the same pool that some Republican governors are refusing to take because of the stated fear that federal guidelines will force them to raise taxes at a later date. However, Duncan is demonstrating that he has a visceral understanding of politics. He went after the Republican governor most identified with refusing the stimulus money -- Mark Sanford of South Carolina:
According to a New York Times article Mr. Duncan unleashed a barrage of dismal statistics about South Carolina schools, noting that only 15 percent of the state’s black students are proficient in math and that the state has one of the nation’s worst high school graduation rates.
“Those are heartbreaking results; those are children who will never have a chance to compete,” Mr. Duncan said. “For South Carolina to stand on the sidelines and say that the status quo is O.K., that defies logic.”
Mr. Sanford would not quibble with Mr. Duncan’s portrayal of South Carolina schools, [his spokesman Joel] Sawyer said.
“What we quibble with,” he said, “is whether spending an ever-increasing amount on education will fix the problem.”
Duncan has produced a very tight trap here. The Republican argument over the stimulus package has been that much of it is wasteful spending -- pork even. But, not only is Duncan refusing to just hand over the education portion of the stimulus package without strings (Sanford wants to use the education-related stimulus money to pay down state debt.). He is demanding that states produce a snapshot of the current state of their schools. This, in the past, is something Republicans cheered. It means the dreaded "A" word -- accountability. Indeed, it is something that NCLB was supposed to help produce.
But, Duncan, as noted believes that NCLB has created an evil incentive -- encouraging states to dumb down tests in order to meet the vague standards that NCLB has set. He's now using the promise of billions of stimulus money to get at some hard data that he can make use of in the future.
On the face of it, one doesn't like to see states rewarded with stimulus money -- when, inevitably, the results that they provide will show that they have been gaming the system over the last few years. But that's a worthwhile sacrifice if this data can be used as a later date as a cudgel over the heads of many school systems. As the example with Sanford shows, he's not afraid to use this info to try to sparks some uncomfortable discussions.
Meanwhile, Republicans are going to have to put their ideological money where their mouths are: Are they really interested in things like accountability and standards when it comes to education? Or do they just want to pay lip service to those phrases? Rather than just rejecting the federal money that is on hand, why not accept it and create some of the alternative programs that might actually improve a given state's academic performance?
In the space of one week, Duncan crossed unions and many liberal Democrats in New York City by endorsing continued mayoral control under Michael Bloomberg -- and has ticked off a conservative Republican governor over providing data on student results.
George W. Bush wanted to be the Republican to steal the education issue away from the Democrats, but with Duncan as the point man, Barack Obama could be the Democrat who steals education reform from the Republicans.
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.