Society and Culture, Education

Obama Speaks, Duncan Overreacts

obama-classroomEvery time our earnest Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks of late, he seems to unearth new things that Washington can and should do to schools. Earlier this month, he promised the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that the administration would see that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reauthorization required turnaround schools to obtain parent and community input as well as lead an “honest, open discussion.” Of course, Duncan is ardently pushing “state-led” national standards and watching his Department of Education flag 19 (!) states as impressive enough to merit being Race to the Top finalists. Earlier in the year he promised Congress a billion-dollar bonus if they reauthorized NCLB this year (though this one kind of ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution).

Yesterday, Duncan told the National Urban League, “We will ensure that all schools—public, private, and charter—serve the kids most in need.” He went on, saying, “That is also something you told us was important. We heard you loud and clear, we are responding and these schools will be held accountable.”

Mike Petrilli, over at Flypaper, had the most appropriate response—which boiled down to, “What the hell?” Or, as Mike put it:

Set aside the Secretary’s assumption that charter schools aren’t serving “the kids most in need.” What on earth is he planning to do to “ensure” that private schools serve needy kids? How is he going to hold them “accountable”? Accountable to whom? Most don’t get public funds. Many are more diverse than traditional public schools. What the heck is he talking about?

Today, the president, after allowing his affinity for crowd-pleasing jobs packages and his hot-and-cold attention to out-of-control federal spending to force him into a showdown with House Democrats over Representative David Obey’s jobs bill, spoke to the Urban League about the importance of teacher quality and the need to remove ineffective teachers. He spoke some important and difficult truths, saying:

Surely we can agree that even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we need to make sure they’re delivering results in the classroom. If they’re not, let’s work with them to help them be more effective. And if that fails, let’s find the right teacher for that classroom.

Good for Obama. These are hard things to say, especially for a Democratic president facing a challenging fall, and he deserves much credit for hanging tough. But the problem is that I now get nervous when I hear the president say even good and important things. The reason is simple: the secretary of Education’s seemingly limitless sense of his role has me leery that every promising idea the president voices is going to become yet another opportunity for ill-considered overreach.

Image by Obama-Biden Transition Project

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