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Local School Board Members Play Hardball With Duncan

For U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, local school board members can be a really tough crowd.

Last year, the National School Boards Association members gave Duncan grief after he tangled with them over his support of mayoral control.

Not dissuaded, Duncan came back today to address the same crowd, whose members have come to grips with the new federal education reality. And many of them don't really like it. (They didn't really like their reality under former EdSec Margaret Spellings either.)

In his speech, Duncan had nothing really new to say, choosing instead to reiterate past accomplishments (think Race to the Top and school turnarounds) and talk about what's next on his agenda (think reauthorization, reauthorization, reauthorization). He did use his bully pulpit to take another swipe at the Atlanta school district's troubled board, using it as an example of where "leadership is actually hurting children," and declaring that the board is in a "real sense of denial."

The most interesting part of today's event came during the Q-and-A, when we got a real sense of just how fed up many school board members are with federal policies, and with the existing accountability system under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Among the questions: Why do you continue to focus on incentive pay for teachers when research shows it doesn't work? How is it fair to judge a school district full of students who don't speak English well on an English-only test, for purposes of determining which schools qualify for School Improvement Grants? And—in reference to the Obama administration's focus on competitive grants—Why should children compete for their education?

Another key question on the minds of board members: If ESEA is not reauthorized this year, as Duncan wants, will he grant waivers for school districts from some of NCLB's sanctions?

"My whole mentality is to get the thing passed," the secretary said, declaring he'd only worry about the waivers issue if he's forced to.

In a follow-up question, another school board member called him out for failing to answer the original question as to whether he'd support more waivers for districts. And as any good politician would do, he dodged again. Instead, he reiterated his urgency to get ESEA reauthorized this fall. "If we don't do it now," he said. "I don't think it will get passed next year."

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