Arne Duncan calls charter schools part of the Mass. solution
Former ed secretary says Democrats should embrace models that work for poor kids
WADING INTO A battle that has become increasingly contentious and has divided Democrats like no other domestic policy issue, President Obama’s longtime education secretary, Arne Duncan, said allowing more charter schools in Massachusetts is the right thing to do, particularly for poorer black and Latino children who too often have no one fighting for them.
Duncan, who was in Boston to speak at an awards event sponsored by pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform, said Democrats should be guided by two big principles.
“Our policies have to be based upon evidence and based upon facts,” he said. “Secondly, we have to be the party that fights for those who have a harder time fighting for themselves.”
Duncan, who stepped down from his cabinet post earlier this year, said the facts on charter school performance in Boston “are unequivocal,” calling them “arguably the very best in the nation.” And, he said, parents in urban districts who are eager to have their children attend a charter are “desperately wanting something better for their kids.”
In an interview following his speech, Duncan said he supports expanding any school model that is getting good results and is not wedded to any particular approach. “Let me be very clear: I’m not pro-charter or anti-charter,” he said. “I’m pro-high-performing school.”
He said not all charters fit that description, including some suburban charters in Massachusetts. But he said the ballot question before Massachusetts voters is really about urban districts, Boston foremost among them, that are at or near the existing state cap and would be able to add more charter seats if the measure is passed.
“You have a set of charters that are inarguably the best performing in the nation,” he said. “Where you have tens of thousands of predominantly African-American and Latino parents demanding, pleading for more opportunities for their kids, we’re not going to pay attention? We’re going to pat them on the head and say, ‘we really know better than you’? That’s not who we are. This is all they’ve got. This is their only shot.”
The charter school ballot question, which would allow up to 12 new charter schools or expansion of up to 12 existing schools each year beyond the current state cap, is drawing national attention, and millions of dollars of spending on both sides.
Proponents argue that charter schools, which operate free of many of the restraints of district systems over teacher assignments and the structure and length of the school day, are proving to be an educational lifeline for poor families in urban communities with low-performing district schools. Several rigorously conducted studies have found that Boston’s charter schools are the highest-performing charters in the country.
Opponents have centered their arguments on the funding that leaves district systems when students enroll in charters, and said the unlimited charter growth allowed by the ballot question would devastate district school systems.
His tenure was controversial, and Duncan wound up drawing sharp criticism from the left and the right, with teachers unions angry over policies on charters, high-stakes testing, and teacher evaluations, while conservatives recoiled at his efforts to have states adopt new education standards.
For his part, Duncan said, “you’ve got to distinguish noise from reality.” Despite the backlash against the Common Core education standards, he said more than 40 states have stuck with their commitment to new, higher school standards.
He ticked off a list of other education accomplishments under Obama, including increased high school graduation rates, more funding for early childhood education and Pell grants for low-income college students, and reauthorization of the main federal education law in ways that he says correct for some of the errors in No Child Left Behind, the version of the law passed in 2001. For a guy blamed for overemphasizing the role of testing, Duncan said, “I hated that in No Child Left Behind accountability was focused on one thing: a test score.”
Duncan grew up in a middle-class Chicago family, attended private school, and then went on to Harvard. But he gained a lot of the insights and inspiration for his work by hanging out at the afterschool program his mother ran that served predominantly low-income black children in a tougher, adjacent South Side neighborhood.
As for the president’s commitment to education, “this was as personal as it gets,” said Duncan. “The time I loved most with him was visiting classrooms, and just talking to kids when the press wasn’t there. He was so real and honest. He would ask kids, ‘how many of you grew up without your dad? How many of you grew up on welfare?’ And then he says, ‘guess what? So did I.’ And you could just see the kids stunned.”
Education policy for Obama, he said, “was not just an intellectual exercise. This was something that cut to who he was and is at his core.”As controversial as his legacy is, Duncan said, if anything, he thinks he should have been more, not less, aggressive in pushing the pace of change. But he turns a question about becoming a lightning rod for criticism from the left and right on its head and suggests it’s a sign of Obama’s commitment to try to push past political obstacles.
“He challenged us every day to fight for kids and, frankly, very candidly, not to focus on politics,” Duncan said in the interview following his speech. “His track record is remarkable because he didn’t think about politics, because he thought about creating opportunities for all kids, but, to be clear, particularly for kids in communities in our country who were historically underserved.”