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In Testimony, Arne Duncan Continues to Distance Himself From Common Core

In a hearing before a House appropriations subcommittee Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the competitive grants built into his fiscal 2015 budget request, gave no substantive details about a proposed Race to the Top for equity contest, and continued to distance himself from the Common Core State Standards.

"I'm just a big proponent of high standards. Whether they're common or not is secondary," he told members of the House appropriations subcommittee that works on health, education, and other related issues.

Duncan also maintained that there are "zero" federal grants tied to the common core, after being pressed by members, including Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., who has filed legislation to prohibit the federal government from trying to encourage states via grants or waivers to adopt certain standards. (Note I clarified Roby's position, as she's not explictly anti-common-core, just against the federal government getting involved in such things.) Duncan pointed out that in instances where U.S. Department of Education programs such as No Child Left Behind Act waivers are tied to common standards, they include a back-up option for non-common-core states: getting universities to approve the standards as college-ready. (Virginia has a waiver, but has not adopted the common core.)

But when it comes to competitive grants, the answer is more complicated than "zero." The administration's original $4 billion Race to the Top program awarded 40 points to states for developing and adopting common standards. All 12 of those winners have adopted the standards, and have not backed off. What's more, a separate, $360 million Race to the Top contest to fund common tests was based on the premise that states needed help developing such assessments based on the common standards. But technically, aligning to the common core wasn't required (you just probably weren't going to win without it).

Duncan's testimony, which didn't contain such nuances, illustrates the fine line the department continues to walk between supporting states as they implement the common core, and not giving critics ammunition to cry "federal overreach."

Duncan appeared before the House panel Tuesday to answer questions about the Obama administration's $68.6 billion budget request for the Education Department, which would be about a $1.3 billion increase over fiscal year 2014.

That request includes a new $300 million Race to the Top contest that would offer grants to help states and districts create data systems that track things such as teacher and principal experience and effectiveness, academic achievement, and student coursework.

When pressed by lawmakers, however, he gave few, if any, new details about the contest—other than to imply that rural schools would not be overlooked in any new competitions.

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., wondered "how a competitive program actually addresses equity? ... [It] creates winners and losers in public education." Duncan, however, stressed throughout the hearing that carving out small chunks of money to push states to become models for others is a very fruitful use of federal tax dollars.

And members pushed back in general on the administration's continued focus on competitive-grant programs. This is a years-old complaint.

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