December 22, 2008

December 22, 2008 | Commentary on Education

A reform-minded education secretary?

Would Chicago Public School CEO Arne Duncan make a good secretary of education? There are reasons to wonder if President-elect Barack Obama's nominee is the right candidate for the job. But there are other signs that he may indeed make the grade.

Duncan is one of several innovative, reform-minded, big-city school chiefs. He recognizes the need for local leadership and innovation. And he supports amending federal policy to grant states greater flexibility and autonomy.

Yet given his support for sharp federal spending increases, it's unclear how well Duncan would translate local lessons to the federal level.

What is clear is that Duncan's past work has earned applause from school reformers. He supports charter schools, public school choice, and merit pay for teachers and school leaders. Duncan also supports holding schools accountable for results and maintaining transparency about school performance through public reporting.

In his words, Duncan's mission has been to make Chicago "the premier urban school system in America." And his leadership appears to be making a difference, with Chicago students making gains on a number of outcome measures.

Of course, the big question is what the next education secretary thinks about No Child Left Behind and the federal government's role in education.

Duncan supports NCLB. But as the leader of the nation's third-largest school district, he also has dealt with the challenges of implementing that law. Those of us who are skeptical that Washington can fix our nation's public-school problem should be encouraged by Duncan's support for providing states and school districts with greater flexibility and autonomy.

Testifying before the House Education and Workforce Committee in 2006, Duncan spoke approvingly of NCLB's accountability framework. But he noted that Chicago's success depended largely on the opportunity to innovate in how federal goals are met:

"Congress should maintain NCLB's framework of high expectations and accountability. But it should also amend the law to give schools, districts and states the maximum amount of flexibility possible _ particularly districts like ours with a strong track record of academic achievement and tough accountability."

This suggests that Duncan may be open to the proposals like the A-PLUS Acts, which grant states greater autonomy and flexibility in how funds are used if states agree to maintain academic accountability and transparency.

As the leader of a big-city school system, Duncan surely appreciates that it takes leadership on the ground to improve a public-school system. It would be a breath of fresh air if the next secretary recognized the limits of federal power and worked to reform NCLB to empower local leadership.

Duncan's experience in Illinois should also cause him to recognize some of the dangers of federally driven accountability. NCLB's arbitrary deadline that all students be scoring "proficient" on state tests by 2014 has created a perverse incentive for states to weaken state standards to demonstrate artificial progress on state tests. The Land of Lincoln appears to be a leader in the so-called "race to the bottom."

Researchers Paul Peterson and Rick Hess have been tracking national trends in state standards since 2005. They report that Illinois' standards have weakened between 2003 and 2007. Only 8 states had weaker standards than Illinois. Ending perverse federal incentives to lower standards should be a priority for any NCLB reauthorization.

In one key area, Duncan appears to be singing the traditional liberal tune: He supports sharp increases in federal funding for education. In his 2006 congressional testimony, he urged Congress to double funding for NCLB over five years, calling it "the best long-term investment Congress can make."

Unfortunately, the data show that Duncan deserves a failing grade here. Decades of increased federal expenditures have yielded little improvement in student performance. After adjusting for inflation, federal spending per pupil has tripled since the 1970s. But long-term test scores have remained relatively flat.

Since spending on NCLB has already grown by nearly 50 percent since 2001, the next education secretary may have difficulty explaining why pouring another $24 billion into the nation's school systems will provide the answer _ especially in the context of the ballooning budget deficit.

In the days ahead, we will be learning a lot more about Arne Duncan's views on education policy. But it's encouraging that he has demonstrated leadership in local school reform and supports giving states and school districts greater flexibility from federal regulation to encourage innovation.

If he successfully pushes that, he could wind up getting a solid report card from parents across the country.


Dan Lips is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Dan Lips Senior Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies

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