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Arne Duncan On NCLB Waivers, Sequestration, Common Core

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan continues to send strong signals that he may grant tailored, district-level waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act in states that have not already won this flexibility.

In a wide-ranging, hourlong interview today with a small group of national reporters, Duncan said he met with some of the "CORE" California superintendents yesterday to discuss their waiver request—as my colleague Lesli Maxwell reported yesterday. The CORE is a group of 10 districts, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, that are moving ahead with reforms their state is slow to embrace (such as the common core and new teacher evaluations). Duncan reiterated in today's interview that his preference is to work with states, especially as the Feb. 28 deadline for the fourth-round of state applications looms.

But after that, he said, district-level waivers would be something he would think through.

UPDATE [12:52 P.M.]: Rick Miller, the executive director of CORE, is very optimistic after yesterday's meeting. He told me in an email: "We did leave with high hopes. There were no guarantees, but the conversation was completely focused on how to make it work as opposed to the reasons it wouldn't work. We're definitely still working on our draft and revising it, but all in all we feel very optimist that we'll be able to submit a compelling application that will positively impact millions of students.

But many big questions remain, including: Just how would Duncan evaluate a district-level waiver, since the existing process is designed for states only?

To that end, top aide Carmel Martin said, "We would want to have a very high bar." She said that Duncan would have to be able to make the case that the waiver would improve student achievement and instruction in those districts. She added that there are "challenges" to work through because the existing law says that only the state can ask for flexibility from certain things. (I may be making a big leap here, but I think it's noteworthy that Duncan had Martin answer this more specific question. That says to me that something serious is in the works.)

And there was plenty more Duncan had to say on a host of subjects. Here's a snapshot:

On sequestration: "I'm increasingly concerned this is going to happen." He said schools are already starting to give teachers reduction-in-force notices that their jobs might not be there next year if the looming automatic federal budget cuts kick in.

On whether the department will encourage states to adopt new common science standards: This seems doubtful, based on his response. "There's a growing recognition among states that having everyone do this in isolation doesn't make sense. ... If these are good, strong standards, I think there will be significant interest out there without us needing to do a lot."

On states (like Alabama) dropping out of a common testing consortia: "I'm not losing sleep over it." In states that decide to go another direction, "more power to them."

On gun violence: He said he's headed to Connecticut today with Vice President Joe Biden to continue to work on the issue, adding that he spoke last night with a Newtown, Conn., teacher who shielded her kids in a classroom closet during the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, saving their lives. And he's getting ready to work with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius on a national conversation about mental health. He downplayed any talk that teachers might want to be armed, calling that "just an opportunity to sell guns." (However, please read my colleague Nirvi Shah's fantastic story about teachers who are armed in the classroom.)

On when new teacher-prep regulations will be unveiled: "Soon." And Duncan wouldn't get any more specific, suggesting it's a ways off.

On the preschool initiative unveiled in the president's State of the Union speech: He said there will be more details in the president's budget.

On the high school redesign contest unveiled in the State of the Union: Ditto. Although when pressed as to whether this will be a Race to the Top for high schools, he said, "We'll do something like that."

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