Morning Bell: Duncan Chose Choice … Will He Allow You?

Conn Carroll /

After eight years under President Bush, federal spending on K-12 public education is at an all time high. The federal government currently spends $71 billion a year on K-12 programs, an increase of more than 40% from when Bush first took office. The word ‘education’ does not appear in the Constitution,and historically the federal government has a very limited role in funding and regulating public education. But all that began to change with President Johnson’s Great Society and now 40 years later the federal government provides 9% of all K-12 public education funding. Predictably, however, the increased spending has not yielded better results. Despite a trippling of federal spending since 1970, student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has remained relatively flat. Worse, in many of our nation’s largest cities, barely half of all children graduate high school.

President-elect Barack Obama’s secretary of education nominee Arne Duncan has shown an encouraging willingness to make tough decisions at the local level. The Obama Administration has the historic opportunity to transform the federal role in education and, in the process, support reform at the state and local level. To evaluate whether Secretary-designate Duncan will support this transformation, Senators should keep the following questions in mind as they consider his confirmation:

State Bailouts: Six governors have recently called on the federal government to provide a $250 billion “rescue package” for education. There is nothing temporary about these budget shortfalls. For years state government spending on education has increased well ahead of inflation. Does Duncan support a sharp increase in federal spending on education and a federal “bailout” of state and local governments, or will Duncan regulatory relief and greater flexibility as the answer?

Tightening the Federal Role: Since the 1960s, the federal government’s approach to education has been to increase federal funding and to create new federal programs. This strategy has failed to yield significant improvement as judged by long-term measures of students’ academic achievement. In previous congressional testimony, Duncan called for reforming No Child Left Behind to grant state and local school leaders greater freedom and flexibility to innovate and implement reforms that best meet students’ needs. But Duncan has also called for a doubling in federal spending on No Child Left Behind. Does Duncan support reforming, not expanding, the federal role in education?

Cutting Waste: The federal government’s Program Assessment Rating Tool recently identified 47 programs in the Department of Education’s budget that were ineffective, unnecessary, or duplicative. Does Duncan support reviewing the Education Department budget and terminating unnecessary programs?

Reforming Early Childhood Programs: The Government Accountability Office reported in 2005 that there were 69 federal programs providing early childhood education and care. The largest of these programs is Head Start, which was funded at $6.9 billion in 2008 with a cost per child served of approximately $7,500. Unfortunately, the nearly $100 billion in taxpayer money used to fund the Head Start programs has had limited impact and has not delivered on the promise of significantly improving school readiness for disadvantaged children. Considering this track record, does Duncan support creating a new federal preschool program?

Supporting Choice: Growing up in Chicago, Arne Duncan attended a private school. Growing up in Hawaii, Barack Obama attended a private school. Growing up first in Chicago, and now in Washington, Obama’s two daughters attended and will attend private schools. Across the nation, a policy debate continues over whether families should be given the ability to use their child’s share of public education funding to pick a school of choice, be it a public, private, or charter school. As education secretary, would Duncan support policies that will afford parents the same power to choose schools that the Obamas and Duncans have enjoyed?

Recognizing the federal government’s limited authority in education, the new Administration has the opportunity to encourage greater parental choice. Federal programs like No Child Left Behind and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act can be reformed to grant state policymakers the opportunity to use federal funds to give parents the ability to choose their children’s school. Most importantly, the leaders of the new Administration should use the bully pulpit to urge lawmakers across the country to join the growing bipartisan support for school choice.

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