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School Board Members to Arne Duncan: Back Off

After four years in office, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan still hasn't won over local school board members.

But he keeps coming back, year after year, to tangle with members of the National School Boards Association during their federal meeting in Washington.

In remarks yesterday, he laid out the four tenets of his second-term agenda: more money to expand access to high-quality early education for disadvantaged children, reauthorizing No Child Left Behind (and following through on waivers), making good on President Obama's goal to lead the world in college completion by 2020, and passing gun control legislation in the wake of the Newtown shootings.

But for the most part, school board members didn't want to hear about his agenda. Instead, they sent a clear message: Your policies continue to overreach into our territory. (They voiced similar complaints about federal overreach last year, and fought with him over mayoral control of schools in 2010.)

Yesterday, a Pennsylvania school board member, who said "what's killing us is charter schools," wanted to know Duncan's position on these nontraditional schools. (He supports charters, of course.) Local school boards sometimes complain that charters reduce their enrollment and siphon money away from traditional public schools while operating without the same level of oversight.

One questioner made a point to ask all elected officials in the audience to stand (hundreds did), in a veiled reference to Duncan's un-elected status. (Of course, Duncan's boss is elected.) Duncan got a little prickly when he was asked how he will "support, and not undermine" local management of schools, and demanded specific examples. To which the crowd started getting a little hostile, offering up loud groans and even some heckles.

Interestingly, Duncan did not raise the prospect of district-level waivers under No Child Left Behind—which would have been an easy bone to throw to a relatively unfriendly crowd.

Perhaps to sum up a lot of the board members' grievances, another questioner wanted Duncan to reconsider his policy on competing out Race to the Top funds, handing out waivers with strings, and supporting charters.

"Ma'am, I'm not prepared to do that," he said specifically in reference to handing out waivers without strings, though that reply pretty much summed up most of his answers.

To further make their point, the NSBA is pushing legislation that would make it harder for the Education Department to do some of its business by, for example, establishing "several procedural steps" before the feds could initiate rules, grant requirements, and guidance documents. (There are others that might agree with this, given the outcry some have expressed over the Education Department's recent guidance on students with disabilities playing sports.)

"In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education has engaged in a variety of activities to reshape the educational delivery system," said Thomas J. Gentzel, NSBA's executive director, in a statement. "All too often these activities have impacted local school district policy and programs in ways that have been beyond the specific legislative intent. School board leaders are simply asking that local flexibility and decision-making not be eroded through regulatory actions."

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