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Arne Duncan Makes Sales Pitch for Waivers, Turnarounds, Early Ed in Senate Hearing

No Child Left Behind waivers are not having a very good week on Capitol Hill. 

When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified before the House education committee Tuesday, he was slammed by both Democrats and Republicans for his approach to overseeing waivers from the NCLB law. And the very next day, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a member of the Senate committee that deals with education spending, continued to beat the anti-waiver drum when Duncan appeared to defend his budget request on the other side of the Capitol. 

Alexander, who is also the top Republican on the education committee, has never been a huge fan of the waivers, and it seems the department's decision to revoke Washington state's flexibility because of teacher evaluations really got under his skin. (Background on that issue here.)

"We agree that teacher evaluation based on student performance is sort of the holy grail of Elementary and Secondary Education," Alexander told Duncan. "Where I'm afraid we disagree is that I believe that's a state and local responsibility and you believe it can be required from Washington. D.C. ... I don't think you can order [teacher evaluation] from here or define it from here. ... What I think you're doing is creating a backlash among conservatives who don't like the federal government involved, and a backlash among teachers' unions who don't want any form of student achievement related to teacher evaluation. You're undermining, I'm afraid, the very high standards and teacher evaluation that I think both of us want to do." 

Alexander wanted to know, essentially, whether Duncan would describe his administration's waiver system as "a national school board." (That's Alexander's favorite line.) 

Duncan fired back, "I know what it is to be a superintendent," he said, noting that he oversaw Chicago's school system. "I'm not a national superintendent now."

States, he said, have a lot of flexibility within the waivers to figure out how to evaluate teachers and to set high standards that will prepare students for college and career. "We never have, we never will, touch curriculum," Duncan said, which he noted sometimes gets confused with standards (which set expectations for what students should know and be able to do.)

He sees the Department's role as a partner to states. Exhibit A, he argued, is Alexander's home state of Tennessee, which has seen big improvements in student achievement in recent years, and was the recipient of one of the administration's first Race to the Top grants

Meanwhile, the administration's signature competitive grant programs took some abuse from Democrats. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a big charter school proponent, chided Duncan for proposing level funding for the federal charter program, at nearly $250 million. She said there's significant evidence that high-quality charter schools with strong leadership can make a huge difference when it comes to student achievement. On the other hand, she argued, it isn't clear that the administration's prescription for failing schools, the School Improvement Grant program, works, despite an influx of roughly $6 billion in recent years. 

"We gave you billions of dollars for traditional public schools. You've given a very small amount of money for public high performing charters. The evidence is in, they work. We've given ten times that much money for School Improvement Grants for traditional public schools," Landrieu said. She asked for evidence of SIG's effectiveness.

Duncan credited the SIG program—which seeks to stem the drop-out rate—with helping to nudge up graduation rates nationwide. And he noted that SIG schools can choose to turn themselves in charters, even though few high-quality charter providers have taken on the turnaround challenge. Duncan did not, however, cite the actual data that has already come out about SIG, which showed that about two thirds of schools in the program made gains during its first two years, while another third actually slid backwards. 

Landrieu was unconvinced. "I'm going to be looking for some very hard evidence on the $6 billion you have spent on turnaround models," she said. 

This isn't the first time Landrieu has made it clear that she'd much rather the administration and Congress funnel money to charters, instead of SIG. Last year, she introduced an amendment during committee consideration of the education spending bill that would have stripped some $35 million from the roughly $505 million SIG program and given it to charters. The amendment failed, in the face of vehement opposition from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who oversees the panels that deal with education spending and policy.  

Duncan also made it clear that he wants to see Congress enact the administration's proposal to significantly ramp up preschool for 4-year-olds, a goal shared by Harkin. While it's unlikely that Congress will make the entire plan a reality, lawmakers have already put a downpayment on a piece of it: $250 million in preschool development grants, included in the most recent education spending bill, for the federal fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30. Duncan wants additional money for the grants this year. 

It's clear that Harkin also wants to continue another program, first funded last year, the "First in the World" fund, a sort of Investing in Innovation style program for college. He gave the program a shout-out in his opening statement. 

And even though Harkin wishes that the administration had included more money for special education in its budget request, he likes the administration's proposal for a $100 million competitive grant program to improve outcomes for kids with disabilites. 

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