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Duncan Courts State Lawmakers on Reform Agenda

Seeking more allies for his school improvement agenda, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today asked a select group of state legislators to keep "pushing very, very hard" on the policy levers that he and President Barack Obama have made a top priority.

Mr. Duncan also asked the lawmakers to back the administration's beleaguered $23 billion jobs package that he has said is crucial for saving hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs.

"We need bipartisan support for this," he said, asking them to use "your collective voices, as much as you are comfortable talking about this."

The lawmakers, representing 17 states, spent the day at the Education Department's Washington headquarters listening to presentations and asking questions of Duncan's top deputies. The day-long affair ended with a 45-minute question and answer session with the secretary, who praised state legislatures for a series of new laws and changes to K-12 policy that have been driven, in large part, by the $4 billion Race to the Top competition.

Mr. Duncan called the amount of change to state laws over the last 18 months "stunning to me," and told the 25 lawmakers that he needed their support even more because of the turnover in state schools' chiefs and governors expected as a result of this fall's elections.

The praise he issued to the lawmakers was mutual, at least during the question and answer session. Notably, none of the lawmakers asked Mr. Duncan about the more controversial pieces of the Obama administration's education agenda: the required methods for turning around low-performing schools, which have brought pushback from state schools' chiefs, local education leaders, and members of Congress; and the proposal to streamline programs in the federal education budget and make some of them into competitive grants, rather than formula-driven programs.

"They are definitely looking for allies and for supporters," said Maryland State Sen. Nancy J. King, a Democrat from Montgomery County.

But the legislators were apparently tougher on Mr. Duncan's deputies who discussed a range of topics with them, including the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the $3.5 billion Title One School Improvement Grant program.

"Performance pay for teachers didn't fly at all with this group," said Ms. King, who is a member of the National Conference of State Legislatures and sits on that organization's education committee. "But it's good the department met with us. We've been pushing for the department to put us into the discussions since we are the ones who have to fund education in our states."

Mr. Duncan used his time with the lawmakers to say that the administration does not view charter schools as the answer to closing the achievement gap between affluent students and their low-income peers. He also went out of his way to downplay what he said was the media's misportrayal of the administration's agenda as a battle between education reformers and teachers' unions.

"Resist those easy platitudes and narratives," he said. "There are dozens of examples of breathtaking union leadership."

Of course, Mr. Duncan couldn't escape without at least a few questions on the second round of the Race to the Top sweepstakes. A state senator from Florida asked him pointedly what is the "number-one thing" he wants to see in the applications, which were turned in by 35 states and the District of Columbia on June 1.

He didn't offer anything too revealing, other than to say, "I don't want watered-down reform and 'Kumbaya' around the status quo." Too bad no lawmaker followed up to ask him what he thought of those district and union side deals in Florida.

UPDATE: The 17 states represented at the Education Department yesterday were: Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Sandra Abrevaya, an Education Department spokeswoman, said that every education committee chairperson from all state legislatures was invited to attend the event, along with the majority and minority leaders from every statehouse. Of those who came, 22 were Democrats and three were Republicans.

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