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Arne Duncan Explains It All

Schools and the Stimulus Now that it looks like $100 billion in new funding for education in the economic stimulus package is on its way to being a done deal (assuming the congressional votes go as predicted, that is) the action is shifting to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Duncan, who is still putting together his team, would be handed unprecedented resources, and an unprecedented management challenge.

On a conference call with reporters today, which took place even as the House debated, Duncan sounded pretty upbeat and said the House and Senate are likely to vote on the final bill today.

"This represents a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to do something dramatically better," Duncan said.

Some advocates for districts are worried there aren't explicit provisions in the bill that require states to get the money out quickly to districts. But Duncan seems very aware that schools in dire straits are clamoring for these funds. He said he and the department plan to "very fast, but also be very smart" and will give states "real guidance around speed." He wasn't specific about exactly what those guidelines might look like.

Secretary Duncan said that a key goals of the bill is "pushing a significant reform agenda," and he highlighted money for programs in the measure embraced by the reform community, including the Teacher Incentive Fund, which would get $200 million.

And he talked about the $5 billion in incentive grants he would be given broad authority over, which includes $650 million for so-called "innovation grants." That money would be used to reward states and districts that are making progress on closing the achievement gap. Even though it's not official yet, Duncan has already named the program the Race to the Top Grants. He says he would consider state standards, assessments, and teacher recruitment and retention when doling out the grants.

Under the bill, Duncan is given authority to waive so-called "maintenance of effort" provisions, which require states to keep up their spending levels for fiscal year 2006 in order to be eligible for the money in the state stabilization fund, a $53.6 billion pot of money used to help states shore up their budgets and restore education funding cuts. The measure would allow Duncan to waive the requirement for states in particularly dire economic circumstances.

Jon Schnur, a co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, was on the call as an Education Department consultant, for those of you keeping score on the personnel game. He said the Department would be issuing some criteria on that waiver, but he indicated it would be looking at states' specific circumstances and doesn't want to issue a "one-size-fits-all" blanket waiver.

And, notably, Duncan said in a response to one reporter's question that he would consider revising newly issued Title I regulations on supplemental services and choice.

“There’s absolutely room in our office to do that," he said. "We want to address these kinds of questions."

That statement might raise eyebrows with Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee, who issued this statement last week.

UPDATE:The House of Representatives just passed its version of the stimulus package, 246-183. As with the original House bill, no Republicans voted in favor of the measure.

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