U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan set aside years of acrimony and disagreements with Gov. Jerry Brown and sang the governor’s praises during an event Friday night in San Francisco.
“I’m really impressed with what the governor is trying to do here. I think he’s showing real vision, real courage,” Duncan told about a hundred educators and education advocates when asked about Brown’s success at passing a historic school funding reform plan that provides additional money for English learners and low-income students. “For me it’s like common sense, but it’s actually revolutionary.”
Duncan’s gesture toward a new era of amicability came during a conversation with Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit research organization.
During a wide-ranging interview, Duncan also gave his strongest indication to date that he’s leaning toward supporting a waiver from some of the penalties of No Child Left Behind submitted by a group of nine California school districts. Again, he credited Brown.
“My strong preference would have been to work with California as a state; didn’t quite work out,” Duncan said. “I’ve worked very closely with Gov. Brown; he encouraged me to look at the CORE districts. You have some fantastic districts and superintendents.”
CORE, the California Office to Reform Education, submitted a waiver application to the U.S. Department of Education in March, shortly after Duncan’s office rejected a waiver from the California Board of Education because it failed to include teacher evaluations and other requirements.
CORE recently resubmitted the request after a significant rewrite based on questions from the U.S. Department of Education; a decision on the waiver is expected soon. Duncan acknowledged that there will be some challenges working with districts instead of a state, but also noted that with 1.2 million children in their schools, the CORE districts have two to three times more students than some states that have already received waivers.
“There are a lot of children, a lot of children of color, a lot of children who don’t come with a silver spoon in their mouth, and I think we have some really courageous superintendents who are trying to do the right thing, so we’ll continue to work through the details and go back and forth,” Duncan said.
For several years now, the relationship between Duncan and Brown could be described as more eye-for-eye than eye-to-eye. In 2009, as California’s attorney general, Brown sent terse comments to the Education Secretary, criticizing the Department’s requirements for states to receive a slice of the $4.3 billion Race to the Top education reform funds. Among Brown’s criticisms was what he saw as overbearing federal control.
“This is a ‘one size fit all’ approach that ignores the vast diversity of our federal system and the creativity inherent in local communities. What we have at stake are the impressionable minds of the children of America,” Brown wrote. “In the draft you have circulated, I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.”
California lost all three of its bids to secure some of the funds, although it did get a piece of the smaller, $500 million, Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant.
In 2011, Brown vetoed a $2.1 million bill to develop CALTIDES, a statewide teacher database, and returned $6 million to the federal government, because he objected to the Department of Education’s requirement that it be linked to the student database in order to link test scores to teacher pay and evaluations.
Most recently, during his State of the State address in January, Brown took on the Department again with his memorable quip against high-stakes testing as “quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers.”
Along with Duncan’s more charitable assessment of Brown was some movement away from earlier, inflexible positions on teacher evaluations and school accountability. He said No Child Left Behind got it “absolutely backwards” by being too loose on goals and too prescriptive on how to reach them. He also acknowledged that teacher evaluations must include multiple measures, but held firm to the belief that the country must develop a system to identify the best teachers to help train the next generation of educators, while finding the worst-performing teachers and helping them move into other professions.
The secretary also took time contemplating his legacy in the Executive Branch.
“I’ve never had a job before when I knew I was going to get fired,” he told the audience. “I’m going to get to get fired in about three years, six months, so I spend a lot of my time thinking about the two or three or four things we can do to change education for the next couple of decades.”
His most ambitious goal is to double access to high-quality preschool, adding room for a million more young children, and financing the $75 billion price tag with a 94-cents-a-pack cigarette tax, but wondered if a “dysfunctional” Congress would take any action.
“It’s a battle,” Duncan acknowledged. “If we do this I think we change education in this country for the next couple of decades.”