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Duncan Covers Familiar Territory in ESEA hearing

Sing along if you know the words: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sketched out his proposal for revising the Elementary and Secondary Act today before the House Education and Labor Committee.

Not only were there no new specifics, there were very few new phrases from the secretary.

On including incentives in ESEA: Duncan said that under current law, there are "fifty ways to fail" but very few rewards for success.

On common standards: "It's an idea whose time has really come."

On accountability: We need to be "tight on goals" but loose on means.

And although few folks brought up any sort of sharp critique of Duncan, the hearing itself wasn't a love feast. The tone was generally collegial, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle still had some pointed questions about Duncan's agenda.

For instance, Rep. John Kline, of Minnesota, the top Republican on the committee, asked why the president proposed only a $250 million increase for special education in his fiscal 2011 budget. He said he agreed with the view of Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., that the proposal amounts to "budget dust." (DeLauro is considered a liberal Democrat, and Kline is conservative on many issues.) "I just want to tell you how deeply disappointed I am," Kline said. "There had to be groans from coast to coast" when districts saw the request. "It should have been billions."

He noted that there appears to be money available, including $1 billion that's contingent on ESEA passage.

Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., said he's "very, very skeptical" of the administration's proposal on after-school programs, which includes a focus on extended-day programs. Duncan repeated a pretty well-worn point, saying he thinks added learning time will help kids compete with those in China and India.

And Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., asked whether Duncan had plans to place a priority on students' nonacademic needs.

"Some students are considerably more in need of support," she said. "They aren't fed well, they're scared, they don't have parental stability."

Duncan said he "couldn't agree more" that schools need to provide students with food, glasses, and other support in trying to raise achievement.

Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., asked how the department would like Congress to revamp assessments for English-language learners and students in special education. He said that lots of schools in his district aren't meeting achievement targets because of these groups.

Duncan said that he thinks that might be the toughest question the department has to tackle in reauthorization. He is working with members of his staff (namely Alexa Posney, the department's special ed guru, and Thelma Melendez, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education and a former English-language learner herself) on what to do.

After the hearing, Duncan had a quick press availability. He said the department's ESEA blueprint is coming "soon," but that's as specific as he got. And, no, he wouldn't tell us who won the Race to the Top competition—or even just how many finalists there are.

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