TOPICS > Education

Schools to Compete for Funding in Obama Reform Plan

July 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Obama administration is pushing education leaders to accept a series of reforms, including performance pay for teachers and a deeper embrace of charter schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan discusses the proposals with Judy Woodruff.
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JIM LEHRER: President Obama set his sights today on education reform. He announced a major injection of federal aid to the nation’s schools in exchange for results.

Judy Woodruff has our lead story report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dubbed “Race to the Top,” the program calls for schools across the country to compete for more than $4.3 billion in grants.

At the U.S. Department of Education today, the president laid out how states and school districts can win a piece of the pie.

U.S. President BARACK OBAMA: If you set and enforce rigorous and challenging standards and assessments, if you put outstanding teachers at the front of the classroom, if you turn around failing schools, your state can win a “Race to the Top” grant that will not only help students out-compete workers around the world, but let them fulfill their God-given potential.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To qualify, school systems have to make changes that include: conforming to national standards; placing no limits on the numbers of charter schools; and linking improvements in student performance to increases in teacher pay.

But several states already are at odds with the requirements of the plan. California, New York, and Wisconsin prohibit student performance data from being linked to teacher evaluations.

And while teacher unions have largely praised the president’s goals, they’ve also voiced concern about the effects on teacher pay and tenure.

In today’s Washington Post, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said there is still a lot to discuss. She said, quote, “The devil really is in the details. On the issues where you have differences, you try to work those out.”

The amount of money is also raising some eyebrows. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has more to spend on this program than all of the discretionary spending by all of his predecessors combined.

Congressman John Kline of Minnesota, ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, says it’s a bad idea. He told the Post, “We just took a big, old checkbook and handed it to the secretary and said, ‘Write a whole bunch of checks.’ I’m uncomfortable that we’re doing that.”

Still, Secretary Duncan says the program is already making a difference. I spoke with him this afternoon at the Department of Education.

Secretary Arne Duncan, thank you very much for talking with us.

ARNE DUNCAN, Secretary of Education: Thanks for giving me the opportunity. I appreciate it.

'A promise and a threat'

Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education
This is a race to the top competition. And we can invest hundreds of millions of dollars in states that are willing to challenge the status quo and push to dramatically improve student outcomes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Washington Post today describes what you're doing as using a promise and a threat to try to strong-arm the education establishment. How do you describe it?

ARNE DUNCAN: I beg to differ a little bit. What we're doing is putting unprecedented incentives out to states and districts that want to reward excellence, that want to push a very strong reform agenda and take their states to a very different level.

We've never had this level of discretionary dollars, $4.35 billion, and we want states to lead the country where we need to go. This is a race to the top competition. And we can invest hundreds of millions of dollars in states that are willing to challenge the status quo and push to dramatically improve student outcomes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The United States has a long tradition of local control over public education, K-12. Does this mean that concept is dead?

ARNE DUNCAN: Absolutely not. And I always joked, before I came to Washington, I didn't think all the good ideas came from Washington. Now that I'm in Washington, I know all the good ideas don't come from Washington.

The best education ideas are always going to come at the local level, from great teachers, great principals, great districts and states. What we have is the opportunity to invest in best practices, to take to scale what works.

And so it's a huge chance to put resources behind those teachers, those principals, those districts that are demonstrating ability to dramatically improve student achievement. That's what this is about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But much of the criticism of President Bush's No Child Left Behind was that it was too punitive. There are those who are now saying this is a punitive approach. How is it different?

ARNE DUNCAN: Well, again, just fundamentally backwards. There's nothing punitive about this. This is a chance for states, if they want -- there's nothing mandatory about this, totally voluntary -- if they want to compete for this money. They have a chance to bring hundreds of millions of dollars into their districts.

And if they don't want to compete, they have the right absolutely not to. So there is no stick on this. This is all carrot; this is all upside.

And what I've seen as I've traveled the country is remarkable passion, remarkable commitment. People want to get dramatically better. And there's a level of enthusiasm about this that I've never seen before.

Obstacles to student achievement

Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education
Many Republican congressmen and senators have been very supportive and are going to be encouraging their states to compete vigorously for this money.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You say that it's all carrot, but what do you say to the children in those states where local officials, for whatever reason, don't do what the federal government is asking them to do? That's not the fault of those children, is it?

ARNE DUNCAN: It's absolutely not, and I worry a lot about those children. But let me tell you: Money is a piece of the answer, but money is never going to be the entire answer in education. I will tell you, quite frankly, far too often adult dysfunction has stood in the way of student achievement and has hindered students' ability to learn.

And so where adults, for whatever reason, egos or being wedded to the status quo or being mired in mediocrity, where they're not willing to do the right thing by children, I think it's important for those children's voices, those parents' voices to be heard and that they should demand something better.

The stakes are far too high. This, to me, is the civil rights issue of our generation. This is a fight for social justice. The fight for quality education is the only way we're going to get to a better economy. There's a real sense of economic imperative here.

So the stakes have never been higher. And we all have to behave in very different ways to get the kind of dramatic breakthroughs that our children and our country desperately need. More of the same is simply unacceptable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said yourself it's almost $4.5 billion. What do you say to Republican critics who say that this much money is wasteful, that there's never been this much money spent on education at one time and, in essence, there's no way to account for it?

ARNE DUNCAN: Well, there's actually been strong bipartisan support. And many Republican congressmen and senators have been very supportive and are going to be encouraging their states to compete vigorously for this money.

What we have, again, is a chance to take to scale what's working. This is a chance to scale up best practices. It's a chance to invest in those districts that are both closing the achievement gap and raising the bar for all students.

And we will absolutely be transparent. We'll be absolutely accountable for the use of every single dollar. But this is a chance to really take to scale what works.

And that's what we've been missing. We've been satisfied to have pockets of excellence, islands of excellence. None of us can sleep easy at night, none of us can be satisfied until every child has a chance to get a great, great education. And these resources are going to help us push the ball down the field in an unprecedented way.

Teachers' response

Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education
What teachers have said and the unions have said very clearly is they want reform happening with them, not to them, and I couldn't agree more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The teachers unions traditionally have been friends of Democrats, would be friends of a Democratic administration, and they are saying they're broadly supportive of your goals here, but they're also saying they're worried that many teachers are afraid that they may get fired if their students don't do well on these tests and that's an unfair thing to tie the two together.

ARNE DUNCAN: Well, these are complex issues, and the teachers unions have been great partners in helping to think this thing through.

All of us, frankly, have to move outside our comfort zones, teachers, unions, principals, the Department of Education. All of us have to behave in very different ways and collaborate to get the kind of dramatic breakthroughs that we need.

What teachers have said and the unions have said very clearly is they want reform happening with them, not to them, and I couldn't agree more. That's how I've always operated.

Anyone who thinks we can get the kind of success we have to have without including teachers in the implementation of these reforms, in the thought process of these reforms is kidding themselves. It's the right way to get where we need to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what about this comment today from the National Education Association? Quote, "If we continue to focus narrowly on test scores, then students in need of the most support will continue to get more test prep rather than the rich, challenging, engaging education they deserve."

ARNE DUNCAN: I absolutely agree. And no one is focusing just on test scores. I've argued a lot that I've worried about the narrowing of the curriculum.

What we want to do is give students, particularly the early ages, an extremely well-rounded education. I worry that historically we've lost a focus on art, and drama, and music, and physical education. And we want to make sure going forward that more students have those kinds of high-quality opportunities, develop their skills and sense of self-esteem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At this point, you said earlier that if parents feel that local officials haven't done the right thing here, that they should speak up. But it is up to the states and up to education officials to do what you're asking them to do. Are there states, though, who are just already sort of out of the running because of laws that are already on the books?

ARNE DUNCAN: Well, every state has a chance to put their best foot forward and compete. States that have laws that need to be changed have the time and the ability to do that. And we're putting this money out in two different rounds, so they'll have a second chance of getting it.

But what we've seen in the past six months, Judy, without putting out a dime, without spending a dime, we've seen 46 states come together behind common, internationally benchmark standards, really trying to raise the bar. We've seen eight states remove restrictions on charter school growth.

And so we've seen dramatic change in six months without us spending a penny. With billions of dollars on the table, I think we have a chance to see breakthrough reforms around the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, thank you very much.

ARNE DUNCAN: Thanks for having me.