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Previewing Duncan's Speech: Congress Lives in 'Alternative Universe'

The day before the federal government might shut down, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is planning to call on Congress to get its act together, fund a federal government that Americans count on, and treat education as an investment and not an expense.

He is expected to deliver this speech tomorrow at the National Press Club in Washington against the backdrop of a Congress so dysfunctional that it cannot agree on a plan to fund government agencies starting Oct. 1. So agencies, including the Education Department, are bracing for massive furloughs and severe disruptions to government services should a shutdown happen.

"Right now our country faces stark choices: We can continue to play politics with the budget and the debt ceiling, or we can fund a federal government that Americans count on," he is planning to say, according to excerpts provided to Education Week.

This Congress, Duncan will say, doesn't live in the real world, especially when it comes to education.

"This town that so often thinks that it's the center of the universe is, instead, an alternative universe. Here you have some members of Congress who think the federal government has no role in public education—not as a backstop for accountability...not as a partner in enforcing laws and expanding educational opportunity...and not as a supporter of innovation," he is planning to say.

The speech is intended to celebrate what Duncan views as the successes of the first term (no doubt Race to the Top is among them) and challenges and goals of the remaining three years of this second term. Expect him to renew his call to expand publicly funded preschool and focus more attention on college affordability. In other words, don't expect much new in this speech.

But he will use his speech to signal a couple of areas he's interested in monitoring.

In a nod to the eight California "CORE" waiver districts that have won their own tailor-made waiver from parts of the No Child Left Behind law, Duncan said: "I'm especially inspired by the conversations around issues like resilience, grit, and persistence--hard-to-measure qualities that educators know are important to student success." The CORE districts plan to hold schools accountable includes measuring such hard-to-measure things as grit.

He also seems to have his eye on online learning, and making sure such options are high quality. "There has been an explosion of innovation around online learning, and as we expand access, we must stay focused on quality and outcomes," he is expected to say.

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