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EDUCATION SECRETARY OUTLINES OBAMA EDUCATION AGENDA: In Appearance Before House Committee, Duncan Stresses Reform Component of Stimulus Bill, Need to Improve High Schools

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“There are no good jobs out there for high school dropouts. We have to act now to make sure that we do something better for those children and communities.”

On May 20, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appeared before the House Committee on Education and Labor to discuss President Obama’s education agenda. During the hearing, Secretary Duncan, as well as several committee members, expressed an urgency around the need to turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools, especially the so-called “dropout factories” that account for 50 percent of the nation’s dropouts.

During his testimony, Duncan highlighted the $1.5 billion that the president’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 budget would provide for the School Improvement program as a “vital” program for helping states and districts address problems in the most-troubled schools. Combined with the $3 billion it received in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the $545 million it received in FY 2009, the School Improvement program would have more than $5 billion to turn around the lowest-performing schools. Given those resources, Duncan set a goal of turning around one thousand low-performing schools each year for the next five years.

Duncan focused specifically on the approximately two thousand high schools that produce 50 percent of the nation’s dropouts and 75 percent of minority dropouts. He sees these schools as a real challenge, but also a real opportunity given the resources available to work with these dropout factories, as well as the middle and elementary schools that feed into them. “Everyone in this room knows that when children drop out today, they are basically condemned to poverty and social failure,” he said. “There are no good jobs out there for high school dropouts. We have to act now to make sure that we do something better for those children and communities.”

Another topic was the president’s proposal to expand the Striving Readers program from a $35 million program focused on middle and high schools to a more comprehensive $370 million program that would address the reading needs of children in elementary schools as well. “The program will take a comprehensive approach to reading instruction, ensuring that students develop the basic skills as well as the reading comprehension that is so vital to their success in high school and beyond,” Duncan said.

After Duncan’s testimony, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) commended him for his focus on changing the nation’s high schools. Miller noted that the high school initiatives that have been proposed in the committee have been bipartisan, adding that the committee is “ready to move to make the changes that are necessary so that we can effectively change the outcomes for these students and the performance of these schools.”

Earlier in the hearing, Miller praised Obama for recognizing the important role that education can play in getting the nation’s economy back on track. Miller pointed to the $100 billion in education funding included in the ARRA as evidence of Obama’s commitment to “making education a part of [the] recovery” and seriousness about driving reforms in education. “This investment gives us an opportunity to lay the groundwork for reforms that will be essential to any larger effort to improve our schools,” Miller said. “The plan also gives Secretary Duncan the tools to fuel innovative reforms in schools through his unprecedented Race to the Top Fund.”

Duncan agreed that ARRA funds will help the economy in the short term, and stressed that he expects states and districts to take “bold actions” that will lead directly to an improvement in student learning. He said that the reforms efforts driven by these funds will be the key to the nation’s long-term economic success.

“I want local leaders to find change agents who can fix these schools,” Duncan said. “I want them to provide incentives for their best teachers to take on the challenge of teaching in these schools. And where appropriate, I want them to create partnerships with charter school operators with a track record of success. I want superintendents to be aggressive in taking the difficult step of shutting down a failing school and replacing it with one they know will work.”

The secretary also discussed the four commitments, or assurances, that states must make to receive funding under the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF), adding that he will be “scrutinizing” how states spend SFSF money to make sure they are focused on education.1

“I have heard that some states plan to use their stabilization money so as to maintain their rainy day fund and that others may rely on their stabilization grants to pay for tax cuts instead of investing in reforms,” Duncan said. “Let me be clear. I will do everything in my power to reject any schemes that would subvert the intended purpose of the Recovery Act, which is to help schools through the economic downturn and push reform, thereby ensuring our economic prosperity in the future.”

Representative Buck McKeon (R-CA), the top Republican on the committee, outlined the areas where he thought Republicans could work with the Obama administration. Specifically, he cited support for charter schools and expanding pay-for-performance systems for teachers and principals. He also pointed out potential stumbling blocks, including the decision to end the Federal Family Education Loan program and the Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides vouchers to low-income students in Washington, DC.

Video of the entire hearing and a transcript of Secretary Duncan’s testimony are available at http://edlabor.house.gov/hearings/2009/05/the-obama-administrations-educ.shtml.

1) To receive SFSF money, a state must first submit an application to the U.S. Department of Education providing assurances that it is committed to advancing education reform in the four specific areas mentioned in the ARRA: 1) making improvements in teacher effectiveness and ensuring that all schools have highly qualified teachers; 2) making progress toward college- and career-ready standards and rigorous assessments that will improve both teaching and learning; 3) improving achievement in low-performing schools by providing intensive support and effective interventions in schools that need them the most; and 4) gathering information to improve student learning, teacher performance, and college and career readiness through enhanced data systems that track progress.

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