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Duncan Road Tests General Election Speech to "Mom Congress"

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave the administration's general election arguments on education a trial run Monday, in a speech before the "Mom Congress." He talked-up some of the department's greatest hits over the past three years, such as No Child Left Behind waivers, Race to the Top, Promise Neighborhoods and the Investing in Innovation grants, as well the president's push to boost Pell Grants and invest in community colleges.

So what drew some of the biggest applause from this group of parents from around the country? The administration's move to simplify the FAFSA (the main federal student financial aid form) and Delaware's decision to use part of its Race to the Top grant to give all its high school juniors free access to the SAT.

Duncan also previewed the administration's rhetoric on what's likely to be a never-ending battle over education funding in Congress, talking about how cuts at the local level have hurt kids.

"What we have seen recently moves us in the wrong direction," he said. "We can't lay off teachers by the thousands. We can't cut back on extra support for low-income students or students with disabilities or children new to our country learning English. We can't cut out the activities that provide a well-rounded education like science, social studies, art, music, and P.E. We can't cut access to Pell Grants, as some in Congress want us to. We have to do more, not less."

And he added some election-year spice: "Children don't vote. They don't fund PACs and can't afford lobbyists. Too many of them can't even afford lunch," (Note to Duncan speech writers: That last line is a keeper.) 

Interesting inclusion among Duncan's list of Obama administration accomplishments? Higher standards. He made it clear that states have chosen to raise standards, "on their own" but he also made a big deal of them in the speech. (What's more, they're part of an Obama campaign video.)

And then he elaborated:

High standards are not a silver bullet, but they will change the expectations for what teachers will teach and what every child should know. They'll put the U.S. back on a trajectory that's competitive with the rest of the world, and that's a big deal. And if your family moves to another state, your children won't suddenly face lowered expectations in the classroom. For the first time maybe ever, the bar for what children should know will be the same in Massachusetts as in Mississippi.

The administration gave states who joined a coalition working towards college-and-career ready standards extra points in the Race to the Top competition, which arguably lead lots of states to hop on board with the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Then the administration made adoption of college-and-career ready standards a requirement for states seeking to get out from under NCLB's mandates. (States didn't have to do common core, though. They just had to show their standards would get students ready for some sort of post-secondary education or the workforce.) Plus, the administration provided $360 million in federal funding to two consortia to develop tests aligned to the Common Core, something Duncan also highlighted in his speech.

The problem? Some folks are worried that if the administration spends too much time bragging about Common Core, conservative state officials won't want to continue implementing the standards. (There's already some push back, which my colleague Catherine Gewertz sketches out in this totally great, must-read story.)

It seems like the administration might be trying to have it both ways on this one. Duncan told the Council of Chief State School Officers at their legislative conference last month that he'd be happy to send any state a letter, similar to the one he sent to Utah, saying that states have complete control of their standards. And he admitted that sometimes federal advocacy can get in the way of Common Core.

So...should the standards be part of Duncan's stock speech on the administration's K-12 record? Or is that not such a hot idea? Comments section is open!

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