As a new school year begins, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plans to use waivers to rewrite parts of the nation's signature federal education law, whose reauthorization has been stalled in Congress. Meanwhile, states are struggling to meet their ambitious Race to the Top goals as they look for ways to cut spending. I sat down with the former head of the Chicago school system to talk about these issues as well as how he pressured the Iowa governor not to cut his state's pre-kindergarten program and set a low bar for the academic side of college athletics.
Let's start with your plan to issue waivers to allow states more flexibility around parts of No Child Left Behind. What should we expect?
A high bar. Maintaining accountability, high expectations, doing creative stuff around teacher and principal evaluation, and looking at under-performing schools the trade-off for that high bar is a lot more autonomy and a lot more flexibility [for states and schools].
How do you respond to critics who say that linking waivers to conditions [such as improving teacher evaluations or data systems] goes beyond the authority you have under the law?
Secretary Spellings had waiver authority and used it. We're doing the same thing, and we're absolutely confident in our legal authority. I know not everyone in Congress is thrilled, but I've talked to 45 or 46 governors, almost every governor, Republican, Democrat, everyone is saying, "At least someone in Washington is listening to the real world." Haley Barbour in Mississippi said, "Thank God someone is listening." There isn't one governor saying, "I'm not interested" or "Why are you doing this?"
I hope this will be a bridge or transition to reauthorization [of the No Child law]. I wish we would have gotten there, hasn't happened yet, but I hope it will. But it would be the height of arrogance and tone-deafness to just sit here and do nothing when you have a law that simply isn't working for children, their schools, and teachers.
There is a lot of concern that these new waivers could lessen the pressure, particularly in diverse suburban schools, to improve outcomes for minority kids. How are you going to continue to ensure that minority kids don't get overlooked as a result of the new flexibility?
Where you're looking at large gaps, whether it's inner-city, suburban, or rural, and whether it's minority students, poor students, or English-language learners, we're very serious about [closing those gaps] and are going to maintain that commitment.
Can you commit to minority parents that suburban schools will not get a free pass, that their children will still be in the accountability system?
All students will remain in the accountability system.
What's your take on the so-called super committee or Super Congress that will meet to help address the debt and deficit in the wake of the debt ceiling deal? Are there any education programs that should be cut?
We've cut every single year. We've cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of programs. And, absolutely, we should be looking at things that aren't working and be willing to change, but we've done an extraordinary amount of that already. At the end of the day, to think that you should do less early-childhood education or less K-12 reform or provide less access to higher education, I can't support that.
What about the states? Are you going to be pushing them to do more with less?
Everyone has to do more with less. You're seeing states that are still making real progress despite the tough budget times. But I always say that budgets reflect not just numbers but our values. And if our budgets don't reflect the value we put on education, how important we think children are, how important it is that we give every child a world-class education, then, yes, I will challenge that.
For instance, Iowa was thinking about cutting back on early-childhood spending, and I challenged them not to do that. The governor, to his credit, came out a couple of days afterward and said they were maintaining their commitment to early-childhood education.