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Miller to Duncan: Set a High Standard on Race to the Top Grants

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, today urged Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to be very picky in determining which states should get money under the Race to the Top fund, a $4.35 billion pot of money created as part of the stimulus package to encourage states to work on teacher distribution, assessments, data-systems, and standards.

Giving a brand-new Secretary of Education broad discretion over such a huge discretionary grant program – privately dubbed Arne’s Slush fund by some during the stimulus debate - was “an amazing act for the Congress but … also a vote of confidence in you,” Miller said at a hearing of the committee, Duncan's first time testifying before the committee.

But, he warned Duncan to hold firm in deciding who gets the grants, only giving them to states that are really serious about enacting reform.

“When you put $5 billion on the table in Washington, D.C., there’s no shortage of people who will have an interest in that agenda, no matter what it is,” Miller said.

He said the department should go for quality over quantity. “I think it would be better to have fewer entities doing more because they can be the pathway, the beacon [to others],” Miller said. “I’m not sure everybody should be able to participate just because there’s so much money.”

There has been speculation in Washington that, given the sorry condition of most state's finances, the department might give a piece of the Race to the Top Funding to almost everyone. I wonder if that's why Miller worked so hard to make it clear that wasn't Congress' intention in creating the program.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the top Republican on the committee, said there are policies on which the administration and GOP lawmakers agree at the 30,000-foot level - such as that there should be more charter schools. But he pressed the Secretary for specifics on how the federal government can encourage their proliferation.

Duncan said he’d be asking states whether they have charter caps in determining who gets those Race to the Top funds. That could set off debate in state legislatures on whether the grants are worth getting into a fight with charter school detractors.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., asked Duncan about No Child Left Behind Act's reauthorization, which is supposed to ramp up this year. The Ed Sec gave a pretty vague answer on that one.

“We need to get this right,” Mr. Duncan said. “We have a chance to think blue skies.” He said Congress should keep in place the parts of the law that are working, but fix the parts that aren't. "Let’s not tweak around the edges, let’s fix it. I just want to ask all of you to work with me and really do a much better job of making sure that we do the right thing by children.” So... I’m guessing that means the administration is still working on its NCLB renewal game plan.

And there was definitely a lot of mutual admiration between Duncan and Miller, who many folks say are pretty much on the same page when it comes to K-12 policy. Miller praised Duncan’s work in Chicago and called him a “true disruptor” – Miller’s number one qualification for an Education Secretary.

Duncan thanked Miller for being so helpful in his transition to Washington and for being “an absolute champion” for children. “Thank you for your leadership, your heart and passion … for kids in this country,” Duncan said.

No hugging though.

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