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UPDATED: The Michele and Arne Show

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Politics K-12's own Michele McNeil will be on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program this weekend interviewing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, along with the Associated Press' Libby Quaid. (Quaid along with Edweek's Steve Sawchuk and Dakarai Aarons, landed a coveted spot on Alexander Russo's Hot For Education list).

Michele asked Duncan when the department would be sending out the stimulus checks to states and school districts (probably the number one question on school officials' minds). Duncan said districts would be receiving their money and guidance as soon as possible.

And Michele pressed him on whether the Department could enforce the teacher effectiveness and distribution requirements in No Child Left Behind law and that are a condition of states receiving stimulus funding. He said it wasn't an issue of enforceability....does that mean no?

Secretary Duncan told Michele and Libby that he'll be trying to come up with a new name for the No Child Left Behind Act. (He should look here for suggestions).

You can check out the program on Sunday at 6 p.m.

UPDATED: Check out Duncan's very on-message answers here.

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Today's New York Times reports that Harvard's endowment has dipped by $8 billion, down from $37 billion, and that the university has placed a freeze on salaries for staff and nonunion staff members. In addition, Harvard has tabled expansion projects and offered early retirement packages to over 1,600 employees. If the wealthiest university in the world cannot balance its books, how are America's poorest public school districts going to keep school going? Education Secretary Arne Duncan should be jumping with joy at the prospect of doling out upwards of $100 billion, as part of the stimulus package. Chester Finn, former Education Department official, has likened the package to Christmas. Of course, none of us in education want to see this "blank check" go the way of the one Germany gave Austria at the start of World War I. What Secretary Duncan chooses to emphasize will reveal a lot about the new administration and the future direction of education in America.

It is difficult to sympathize with Harvard's plight and their circumstances mirror that of hedge fund managers who have watched their stock portfolios shrink by millions and in some cases, billions. The rich have gotten less rich, but they are far from poor. Harvard can still offer cutting edge programs and first-rate teaching, with no shortage of resources, even though the school of arts and sciences has slashed its budget by 10 percent. What will happen to schools that are underwater, or very close to the margin? Secretary Duncan has to weigh the needs of 14,000 school districts across the country, coupled with the budget mess of California, which has already cut significant amounts of education funding. In addition, the needs of under-served communities far outweigh the attention of suburban school districts, already buttressed by high property tax revenue.

Secretary Duncan should first call for an audit of all schools and school districts, and take a hard look at administrative office bloating. Many schools and school districts are layered with heavy administration, and fail to run their operations smoothly and efficiently. The last thing America needs is fewer teachers in the classroom, with class sizes already swelling beyond manageable, especially in under-served communities. Mr. Duncan needs to ask and find out from each school district what the smallest number of administrative staff are needed to keep a school running. This is not unlike the Health Care industry, where fee structures are overblown to offset administrative paper-pushing. President Obama wants to shepherd in a new era of green management and Mr. Duncan can start by creating a technology infrastructure for schools that minimizes the need for administrative staff. Here are some starting points:

How many schools do all of their communication through email, blogs, and web sites?
What kind of electronic record keeping exists in each school?
How much money is spent on photocopying, which needs to fall by the wayside, especially in this era of scanning and creating PDF documents?
How many classrooms are outfitted with LCD projectors, so that teachers do not need to waste their time at the copy machine?
How many students has Mr. Duncan interviewed to hear of their hopes, concerns, and dreams for education?
How many students have access to computers and how many schools are wireless?
How integrated are the various school districts with a national education vision?

Mr. Duncan would be remiss to pass over the efficient system President Obama utilized to run his campaign. Through texting, email, blogging, Facebook, etc., President Obama gathered and used so much data about his supporters that he could attend to their needs and wants in the campaign. Mr. Duncan should do the same, as he brings together a team to figure out how to disseminate these precious dollars. He needs to avoid the "well-worn" paths that Congressional financing has traveled and seek fresh pathways. The way to do this is to tap into the wealth of information he can gather in milliseconds with a carefully constructed electronic network engine. The current apparatus is akin to the limited integration of America's utility system that Thomas Friedman describes in Hot, Flat, and Crowded. There are 3,200 electric utility companies in America and traversing the grid is like taking local roads on a cross country drive. Mr. Duncan needs to overhaul and find a way to integrate the 14,000 school districts into one unified vision of 21st century education. This is a tall task, but now is the time to do it. As President Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel likes to say, "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

So, while Harvard wallows in self-pity at the loss of its endowment monies, Secretary Duncan can mobilize the country's education system, find unity where there is discord, streamline administrative waste, and create new ways of running schools and school districts. President Obama's campaign could do it and Mr. Duncan's education team must do it now.

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