The 50th anniversary of the passing of ESEA was an occasion for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to speak about the bill. It was also the first big set of wordage that Duncan has issued since the Senate version of the ESEA rewrite was unveiled.
That bill contains a whole lot of "The federal government and the secretary of education shall keep their grubby hands off the operation of education in this country." It repudiated and revoked much of what the Obama/Duncan administration shoehorned into sort-of-law with Race to the Top and the NCLB waiver system.
Folks have been waiting to hear what Duncan might say in response to the bi-partisan Senatorial smackdown. But in this particular speech, he mostly said, "Please, sir, may I have some more."
Duncan opened the speech by co-opting a four-year-old as a live example of Things He Values. He rattled off a list of what he considers the successes so far, denounced NCLB as a "broken" law, and rang his notes about how every child deserves a whole raft of opportunities. Vintage Duncan.
Then he talked about the new bill and what it must have.
No portability. We shouldn't shift resources from poor schools to rich ones (no, he did not explain how he manages the cognitive dissonance involved in believing both this AND that charter schools are great and we need more of them).
Parents etc need the lush verdant jungle of information that springs forth from Big Standardized Tests, because without test scores, parents would be ignorant of their own children's development.
He rhetorically linked education to civil rights. He said that the new ESEA should support pre-K schooling. And we should get more students to graduate (and he illustrated this with a story about a Diplomas Now school, including a student who was also in the house to be a visual aid-- I know this use of humans as props is a pan-party political pastime, but it rubs me the wrong way twelve days to Tuesday).
He called for more education Research and Development (but used Tennessee as an example).
In short, he did not directly address any of the federal involvement that Alexander and Murray's committee explicitly rejected. He did not address the end of federally-mandated test-linked teacher evaluation, and he did not address the rejection of federal involvement in turning around "failing" schools, nor the department's seriously reduced role in approving state plans. He did not even whimper at the powers that the Senate proposes to strip from his department.
He did name check both Senators.
Senator Alexander and Senator Murray share a lifelong commitment to
improving education. Senator Murray spent years as a preschool teacher
and early learning advocate for the people of her home state of
Washington. This work is in her blood, it is why she entered politics.
Long before Senator Alexander was Secretary of Education, Governor and a
university President—he fought to end a policy of racial discrimination
at Vanderbilt when he was the editor of his college newspaper. My
father is also from Tennessee and also attended Vanderbilt and he always
had tremendous respect for Senator Alexander.
Both senators' commitment to this nation's children is real.
In short, if folks were hoping that Duncan would come out swinging or that we would eventually be treated to a sassy catfight, folks may commence with the disappointment. There is not so much as a veiled oblique criticism of the Senate draft in this speech. The closest to a cautionary word was the sentence "We cannot cut our way to greater opportunities for our children."
And the short summary version of what he wants to see in the bill is now broad and vague:
A new law must build a foundation for 21st century schools by investing
in innovation, supporting our fantastic teachers and principals, and
encouraging every student's progress so that our nation's greatest
asset, our vast academic and social potential, can be fully realized.
There is not even so much as a "college and career" in the whole thing. Duncan here abandons many of the ideas that were previous must-haves. Instead this is a lot of the warm mushy platitudinous word pie that he has served up in the past while dealing lousy policy at the same time. So I'm not sure what there is to learn here, other than there's no storm brewing. At least not yet.
Perhaps Duncan is just lame-ducking it. Perhaps he wanted to stay positive for the big birthday party. Perhaps he's caught a sense that it doesn't matter if he suggests that the new bill should involve ponies and eclairs for all. But whatever his thinking was, there was not the slightest hint of confrontation with the Senate in this bill, and his advice to the House committee was to imitate the Senate's warm atmosphere of bipartisan swellness, advice that I'm sure the House will resolutely ignore. We may have to do without fireworks entirely until the bill takes its bow in front of the full Senate next week.