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Duncan: It's Time to Create Race to Top for Districts

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Flush with $550 million in new Race to the Top money, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he intends to use the vast majority of it to design a new competition just for school districts.

In an interview with Education Week yesterday, Duncan for the first time foreshadowed what the department's next Race to the Top competition will look like.

"I think we'll use it for the districts," he said. "You can do different things. You can do early childhood as a piece of that, or STEM as a piece of that. ... I don't want to commit, but the bulk of the money will go through districts...what we'll be asking of districts is still very much up for consideration."

Duncan, in a 30-minute, wide-ranging interview, also addressed what he sees as the strength of his department's waiver plan, the weaknesses of congressional attempts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and his desire to stay on as secretary through a second term if President Barack Obama is re-elected.

In the fiscal year 2012 budget deal, Congress late last year awarded the department another $550 million to extend Race to the Top—Obama's signature education initiative—and this time allowed the money to be awarded directly to school districts, and not just to states.

It's clear that Duncan sees the potential of investing a half-billion dollars in districts, especially in states that are, as he calls them, "less functional" and haven't won any other competitive grants.

"I love that we played at the state level. I love that we played in the early childhood space," said Duncan, who is expected to talk about the new Race to the Top in a speech before the nation's mayors in Washington today. "But I'm really really pleased now to have a chance to participate with districts, and there's a huge appetite there."

Besides hammering out the details of what a new Race to the Top competition for districts would look like, Duncan's most immediate task is overseeing an ambitious new plan to grant states waivers from many of the core components of the No Child Left Behind Act—his answer to Congress' inability, so far, to formally rewrite the law. Already, 11 states have applied in the first round, with a second wave of applications due Feb. 21.

Given the choice between sticking with his waiver strategy or having to live with one of the proposed versions of a new ESEA Act offered by the House and Senate, he said the choice is clear.

"No question the waivers are a stronger plan," he said. "I hope that changes. I hope at some point next month, six months from now, or next year that we get a strong bipartisan bill; unfortunately that's not reality."

For the first time, Duncan telegraphed how tough he plans to be on states that win a waiver. It's the same kind of tough talk he engaged in before and during the original $4 billion Race to the Top competition for states.

"I'm not promising anyone we're going to bat 1,000. We may grant a waiver to a state that makes its commitments in good faith but doesn't keep them," he said. "And just to be very clear, and just as in Race to the Top, if we need to revoke the waiver six months from now, a year from now, two years from now, because folks can't deliver on what they said, we're more than prepared to do that."

He was almost as tough on states that don't apply for a waiver—such as California—and decide to stick it out with the current NCLB requirements. Though he said it wasn't his first choice, he said he was prepared to withhold Title I money to states, if needed.

"It is the law, so I think we have an obligation to enforce the law," Duncan said. "If it was warranted ... absolutely." (Chief of Staff Joanne Weiss added that any money withheld likely would be state administrative money, and not the Title I dollars that go directly to benefit students.)

In Race to the Top, Duncan is starting to live up to that tough talk, most recently by putting Hawaii on "high-risk" grant status and threatening to take away its $75 million award. Although the state has made progress in the last several days by reaching a tentative contract deal with teachers, which was a major stumbling block for Race to the Top, he said it's too early to tell if Hawaii is out of the woods. And the same goes for New York, which he said he's monitoring closely as that state also stumbles on its Race to the Top promises.

As for his future, Duncan—a former Chicago schools' chief—made clear that if Obama is re-elected, he wants to stay on for another four years.

"I'll have to see if he's sick of me first," Duncan said of the president. "I'd love to stay."

He cited all the work that's left to do, such as bringing down "unacceptable" high school dropout rates, and raising the country's college graduation rate.

"This work takes a long time. I said repeatedly I desperately wanted to do 10 years in Chicago. I did 7½, and literally this was the only job in the world that I would have left Chicago for," he said. "And I don't think there's a job in the world that I would leave this for. You gotta stick with this work, stick with it for the long long haul. I know how far we have to go."

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is interviewed at his office in Washington on Jan. 17. (Stephen Voss for Education Week)

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