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Duncan to Vermont: Department Still 'Open for Business' on Waiver

Here are a few Friday items for you to chew on that include U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, career and technical education, college funding, Vermont, Kentucky, and Louisiana.

  • Despite Vermont's decision to drop its application for a waiver from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Duncan stressed in a recent interview that the department still was open to having conversations with the state about its waiver application "to get to yes. He said the state should still view the U.S. Department as "open for business" if it chooses to reapply for a waiver.

    Vermont dropped its waiver application in late May; earlier that month, my Politics K-12 colleague Alyson Klein reported that the state was reconsidering its waiver after it couldn't reconcile the department's demands involving stakeholders.

    Duncan declined to say whether the state needed to make major or minor changes to its waiver request, and said it was clearly the state's decision to walk away from the negotiating table.

    "There are lots of models out there that have been approved," Duncan said.

    Duncan made his remarks after a June 7 meeting in Washington with state lawmakers organized by the National Conference of State Legislatures. During the meeting, he touched on a variety of issues.

    He praised the "creativity and innovation" of states, but also stressed the need for more consistently successful efforts in education policy areas ranging from charter schools and teacher education programs to digital learning.

    Speaking of career and technical education and the ability of students to transition directly from community colleges to jobs, Duncan said, "There are lots of pockets of excellence. What we don't really have are systems of excellence."

    In response to questions from legislators, Duncan argued that there were often "false choices" presented to students trying to choose between career-training programs and higher education, since there was lots of overlap between being college-ready and career-ready. He also noted his concern that a number of states have cut their investments in public colleges and universities.

    "The biggest driver of college cost is state investment or lack thereof. ... I understand times are tough. I think that's the wrong choice," he told legislators.

    To listen to audio of Duncan at the June 7 meeting, click play below.

  • While Susan Castillo announced that she would resign from the Oregon superintendent's position at the end of the month, Kentucky's education chief appears to be settling in for the long haul. Superintendent Terry Holliday has signed a contract extension to keep him in the top spot until August 2017, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.

    I talked with Holliday for a story about high-stakes state tests published in the June 6 edition of Education Week. In the interview, he came across as confident and unruffled about the nature of the new, tougher tests Kentucky students faced this year. He was matter-of-fact about the drop in scores the state was likely to see on those tests, but argued that comparing them to previous scores was an apples-to-oranges exercise.

    Now it looks like Holliday will get the chance to see just how those new exams turn out over several years.

  • Extremely unhappy with the broad education reforms successfully pushed through the Louisiana legislature by GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers is taking its arguments to court in an attempt to stop them, Houma Today reported June 7.

    Throughout this year's state legislative session, the LFT and the Louisiana Association of Educators have fought Jindal's expansion of the state's voucher program and charter schools, as well as his move to make tenure more difficult to obtain for teachers. Jindal's education reform package might be the most ambitious of any state in the country, but the LFT argues these changes represent unconstitutional overreach.

    For example, in one of its two lawsuits, the LFT argues that the state's changes to teacher tenure and compensation squash the local control on hiring and firing issues school boards and superintendents are supposed to have, and damages due process rights for teachers. This suit was filed against the state.

    In the second lawsuit, in which the defendant is the state school board, the union argues that changes to the state's funding formula for public schools, part of the voucher expansion, should have required more votes to pass than it received. The suit also claims the changes unconstitutionally diverts taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools through the voucher program, and out of the Minimum Foundation Program that funds public schools.

    "The adoption of the MFP was a travesty," LFT President Steve Monaghan said in a statement. "Even the Speaker of the House made a mockery of the rule of law when he said there is a 'history that the House has not always followed constitutional procedure on this issue'."

    Jindal dismissed the lawsuits as a "coalition of the status quo" in a June 7 statement, and said the unions are trying to deny help to Louisiana students.

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