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Education Secretary Defends Administration’s End Run Around Congress

Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave an emphatic defense Tuesday of the Obama administration’s use of executive authority and competitive grants on education policy to bypass a gridlocked Congress.

“We offered the biggest competitive grants in the department’s history,” Duncan said during a National Press Club speech. “The fact that 45 states have now adopted internationally benchmarked college- and career-ready standards is an absolute game-changer. Virtually the entire country has voluntarily raised expectations for our children.”

States that received the administration’s signature Race to the Top competitive education grants pledged to adopt policy changes the administration favors. The administration has also tied its preferred policy goals to waivers it has granted to 33 states from the 2002 elementary and secondary education law known as No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind (PL 107-110) is long overdue for reauthorization, having lapsed in 2007, and the Higher Education Act (PL 110-315) expires next year. But Duncan made no mention in his speech of how the administration plans to work with Congress on those bills — should he win a second term — other than to say he hopes it’s accomplished in a bipartisan fashion.

Duncan did, however, highlight the difficult fiscal situation and partisan mudslinging that has prevented Congress from overhauling the federal education law and foiled some of the administration’s efforts, as well.

“In the last two years, an estimated 300,000 teachers lost their jobs — and there is little appetite on the Hill to help,” he said, noting that the 2009 economic stimulus package (PL 111-5) helped 400,000 educators keep their jobs but that the money has mostly been used.

Duncan also said he wishes more funding was available to focus on low-income students in particular, but that the current political climate poses a real challenge.

“If some members in the House have their way, programs like Head Start, Title I and IDEA could take a big hit — so we need to continue to fight for these programs that protect children at risk,” he said about current programs that help low-income families and school districts with a large proportion of low-income students.

Duncan conceded that the administration’s first term set “an ambitious pace for change” that some educators feel overwhelmed by.

“Some of them say it’s happening too quickly and not always in a way that is respectful and fair,” he said, touching on aspects of Race to the Top and the waiver initiative that required states to evaluate teachers in part based on student test scores and to adopt other policies that teachers unions have pushed back against.

But Duncan defended the programs.

“Waivers are not a pass on accountability — but a smarter, more focused and fair way to hold ourselves accountable,” he said. And while not every state won Race to the Top funding, Duncan noted that the program resulted in 45 states raising school standards and 33 states changing education laws.

Duncan also praised the changes made at some of the worst school systems in the country through the department’s School Improvement Grants. Of those receiving federal money to turn around chronically failing schools, Duncan said, two-thirds made gains in reading and math the first year of the program.

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