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Arne Duncan: School Spending Disparities Between Rich, Poor Should Spur Action


The huge disparities in money spent on rich and poor students across the country are little known but tremendously damaging, and more must be done to get parents and the public more involved in spending decisions, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in remarks here Monday. 

Speaking at an Edunomics Lab event on school finance at Georgetown University, Duncan also defended the U.S. Department of Education's push to create relatively strong regulations to govern school finance in the Every Student Succeeds Act. He portrayed ESSA as a law that in some situations creates more risk for school accountablity and students, but offers other opportunities as well. And he downplayed his controversial remarks at the end of last year in which he said the department's lawyers would be able to outfox Congress when it comes to ESSA implementation. 


In a conversation with Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, Duncan stressed that school funding gaps between wealthy and non-wealthy schools persist despite federal law, and are quite stark. Two-thirds of students in Title I schools have less money spent on them (per pupil) than their non-Title I counterparts in the same districts, Duncan noted. And a great deal of money in education is spent on things wih little basis in research, he also said.

Those sorts of resource imbalances and mistakes ultimately mean that in places like his hometown of Chicago, where Duncan now works for the Emerson Collective as a managing partner serving disconnected youth, young men in particular are largely left without job or educational prospects and turn to crime. Schools must do a better job to provide those young people jobs and a better path in life, Duncan said: "I want to compete with the gangs."

The goal, he said, is to move beyond numbers and help create narratives and stories about why spending decisions matter, and to make the issue less complicated so that parents and others can take action in their local schools. That also means the federal government doesn't have to micromanage school spending, something Duncan stressed he doesn't like. But that demand for financial equity also means, he said, schools have to deliver strong results. 

"This should be a public dialogue," Duncan said of school finance decisions. "I think it makes us smarter. I think it builds trust. I think it makes it more publicly accountable."

But there's another problem besides school budgets that fail to get attention or are hard to understand, Duncan said—and that's the fact that education is not a high priority for voters.

"The fact that no one votes on these issues, every politician gets a pass," he said.

Defending the Department and Himself

Duncan made waves on his way out the door as education secretary by saying that his department's attorneys would be able to win a tug-of-war with Congress in terms of its regulatory authority in ESSA. Asked by Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute whether he wanted to apologize for that remark and whether he thought it damaged ESSA negotiations, Duncan responded that he would be "happy to apologize."

But he also scorned the idea that politicians were so turned off by his remark that it hurt the climate in Washington for the new law, saying, "My one sentence is that important? Are you kidding me?"

And the former secretary also said that some members of Congress were not focusing on the right conversations in terms of helping the neediest children: "I doubt the motivations of some of them."

In that same vein, Duncan defended the Education Department's push in ESSA regulatory negotiations to include per-student spending levels in Title I schools versus the average in non-Title I schools when measuring compliance with the law. It's within the department's rights, he said, to ensure that federal money ultimately is spent on top of, and is not supplanting, state and local money.

On ESSA in general, the former secretary portrayed the law as containing more good provisions than bad. 

"There are fewer, maybe, guardrails, in the law. That's a risk," Duncan said, but also more opportunities for states and districts to innovate, as well as for different constituencies to get involved.

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