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Arne Duncan on Tony Bennett, NCLB Waivers, and ESEA Renewal

Yesterday, I sat down with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for a 30-minute, wide-ranging interview, which produced these key takeaways: He doesn't seem worried at all about the larger, federal-policy implications of the Tony Bennett grading scandal. A decision about the California CORE waiver is not imminent. And, he thinks working on ESEA reauthorization, as of right now, is a waste of time.

What follows are snippets from our conversation in his office yesterday.

The Tony Bennett grade-changing flap

Duncan did not defend Bennett—embroiled in a controversy stemming from his previous job as Indiana state schools chief—or Bennett's actions. Nor did Duncan say there's a reason at this point for federal officials to investigate what happened in the Hoosier State, which involved a grading system at the heart of its NCLB waiver agreement.

Instead, the secretary said, it's important that those systems be developed and implemented transparently. And in the case of Indiana, given that the grading-system changes were exposed in the media, transparency prevailed, he said in the Aug. 1 interview.

"I'm not worried. See what happens when someone messes up?" Duncan said, adding that he doesn't know if Bennett did anything wrong. "You need maximum transparency, and if anyone's looking to do something silly, the costs on their lives and careers is profound."

Duncan said that all the facts of the Indiana situation will come out soon enough.

"I think the facts will emerge, and we'll look at them," he said.

What he's really worried about, he added, is the lack of stability in the top education office in Florida.

Waiver renewals

Even as states continue to work out the kinks in their waiver systems, it's almost time for those state-federal agreements to be renewed. Federal approval of the waiver plans expire as early as the end of the 2013-14 school year. But Duncan wouldn't offer any details about what a renewal process might look like.

"It's early. We're starting to think about it; we'd love to figure out if reauthorization has a shot in a bipartisan way," he said.

ESEA reauthorization

While there are bills moving in both chambers of Congress to revamp the outdated law, Duncan hasn't been out front as a strong advocate for renewal, as he's been on other issues, such as President Barack Obama's proposal to greatly expand access to preschool.

"You want to spend time where people are serious," said Mr. Duncan, explaining that he doesn't view the House Republican version of an ESEA reauthorization, approved last month on a party-line vote, as "serious" in a bipartisan way.

"I want to spend time where there's a chance to get things done."

President Obama's preschool-expansion plan

Even though Duncan has been making many public appearances in support of President Obama's preschool initiative, no bill has yet been introduced, nor is there an appetite in Congress to raise taxes to support public programs. But Duncan sharply rejects the view that preschool legislation is a lost cause.

"Totally disagree. Why is this not a wild goose chase? Because there is such extraordinary bipartisan investment and support across the country that we're seeing from governors, Republican and Democrat," he said. "And while it is not public yet, we have had many, many conversations with Republican leaders in the House and Senate that are frankly encouraging."

Duncan said preschool is one of the most important policy initiatives he wants to accomplish in Obama's second term.

"You have 3½ years to think about what are the big things you want to get done, and the fact that today so few children in this country have access to high-quality early-childhood education, the fact that so many start kindergarten so far behind, the fact that so many never catch up, to me is morally unacceptable, " he said.

District waivers

What Duncan wouldn't talk much about is the tailor-made waiver nine California districts are seeking in order to get out from under provisions of the NCLB law just as states have done. With the beginning of school just a couple of weeks away, those school districts—which cover about 1 million students and include Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Fresno—are anxious for an answer.

But Duncan gave no clues about whether he would go forward with granting such the CORE waiver, except to say his staff hasn't presented him with a proposal to consider.

"Our teams have been working hard," he said. "At some point, staff will bring a recommendation to me; we're not at that point yet."

Some non-answers

There were several questions he couldn't, or wouldn't, answer—and punted to his staff. One was whether he would be in favor of allowing the common testing consortia an extra year to fully implement the tests. Another was on where much-anticipated teacher-prep regulations stand, except to say they're "not where they need to be." And finally, he refused to call out his favorite—and not-so-favorite—Race to the Top states.

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