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Arne Duncan: Beating Up on Common Core Is 'Political Silliness'

Congress, which is just about to shut down the government thanks to a big partisan dispute, took a major beating from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today in a speech at the National Press Club. He hit lawmakers for their inability to come to an agreement on financing the entire government, not to mention a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and immigration overhaul. (More on Congress' endless edu-to-do list here.)

Duncan said Congress is putting petty politics ahead of actually governing.

"They are creating stress and uncertainty...at a time when our schools need stability and investment," he said.

In fact, there was a lot of general beating up on Washington's insular culture, through lines like: "Outside the bubble, people aren't arguing over 140 characters or less" and, "In the real world, parents just want their kids to go to great schools" regardless of whether it's a charter school, a public school, or another option. Did someone on the U.S. Department of Education's speech-writing team just finish reading  "This Town" by the New York Times—a send-up of the Inside-the-Beltway culture?)

Duncan also challenged moderate Republicans to stand up to tea party conservatives on the budget and other issues. "There are plenty of smart, good-hearted Republicans," he said. Duncan also pushed the administration's higher education initiatives, including its work to hold postsecondary institutions more accountable for student outcomes. More on the speech, which was essentially a rerun of Duncan's usual talking points, here.

During a question-and-answer period, reporters pressed Duncan on why the Common Core standards have become so toxic, particularly with GOP activists. He gave his standard (no pun intended) answer: Common ore has become a lightening rod because of "political silliness", nothing more. (No mention however, of the way the Obama administration has tried to use common core to its political advantage, by including it in the Democratic Party platform in 2012, for instance.) Out in states and schools, educators have moved past the politics and are rolling up their sleeves and working on implementation, Duncan said.

Duncan was also pressed on whether he thinks there should be a moratorium on using standardized tests for accountability purposes, as states begin to adjust to the common-core standards and newly aligned tests. He pointed to the waiver-waivers, which have become even more waivery today

Duncan was asked what he's doing to get Republican support in Congress for the president's preschool initiative. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Patty Murray, D-Wash., are working on preschool legislation. But Harkin said he's hoping to get a GOP co-sponsor on board before introducing.

Duncan thinks Republicans on Capitol Hill should be willing to be "a profile in courage" and cross the aisle to support preschool. Out in states "you see an absolute consensus" on the importance of prekindergarten, he said.

"More Republican governors than Democrats have invested in pre-K," Duncan said. What he didn't mention: GOP governors have been reluctant to lend their support to the administration's universal prekindergarten initiative. 

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