Politics & Policy

Arne Duncan Talks Tough

Republicans, quote this schools speech.

For about two years now, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have been co-opting much of the GOP playbook on education. They support charter schools. They endorse merit pay. They decry teacher tenure and seniority. On alternating Thursdays, they bracingly challenge the teachers’ unions.

But on one key issue — spending — they have acted like traditional borrow-and-spend Democrats, only more so. The 2009 stimulus bill included over $100 billion for schools, most of it designed to simply save teachers’ positions. A 2010 “edujobs” bill showered another $10 billion in bailout bucks on K–12 systems to forestall hard choices. And Duncan’s insistence last summer that school districts had already cut “through . . . fat, through flesh, and into bone” only served to undermine the state and local leaders who had been inclined to swing the budget ax by making their efforts seem mean-spirited.

#ad#Well. We’re not sure if the secretary of education had a conversion experience, had a secret plan to woo the ed establishment and then hit it with tough love, or is simply reading the Tea Party leaves, but what a difference a couple months can make. The week before Thanksgiving, Secretary Duncan sang the praises of productivity in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute titled “The New Normal: Doing More With Less.”

It was a humdinger. Duncan opened: “For the next several years, preschool, K–12, and postsecondary educators are likely to face the challenge of doing more with less. . . . [This] can and should be embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements. . . . It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat-your-broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress.”

We couldn’t agree more. Throughout this spending spree, we’ve worried about the pernicious effects of dumping so much cash on our already bloated schools. All this did, we argued, was prop up an unsustainable system whose revenues have grown by one-third since 1995. After three generations of steady growth in per-pupil spending, education was going to have to face its day of reckoning, and schools were going to have to start spending dollars smarter.

This was a speech unlike any we have heard from a U.S. Secretary of Education — Republican or Democrat. Duncan noted that resources are limited, emphasized the need to make tough choices, urged states and districts to contemplate boosting some class sizes and consolidating schools, and didn’t spend much time trying to throw bones to the status quo.

Duncan called for wide-ranging reforms in the name of cost-effectiveness. He said, “The legacy of the factory model of schooling is that tens of billions of dollars are tied up in unproductive use of time and technology, in underused school buildings, in antiquated compensation systems, and in inefficient school-finance systems.” He rightly argued that schooling has to abandon the notion that reform is always bought and paid for with new dollars, and that it’s essential to think of technology as a “force multiplier” rather than a pleasing add-on. His to-do list was comprehensive and spot on. He said, “Rethinking policies around seat-time requirements, class size, compensating teachers based on their educational credentials, the use of technology in the classroom, inequitable school financing, the over-placement of students in special education — almost all of these potentially transformative productivity gains are primarily state and local issues that have to be grappled with.”

In one speech, this (Democratic) secretary of education came out swinging against “last hired, first fired,” seniority-based pay raises, smaller class sizes, seat time, pay bonuses for master’s degrees, and bloated special-education budgets. Which means he just declared war on the teachers’ unions, parents’ groups, education schools, and the special-education lobby. Not bad for a day’s work.

To be sure, Duncan has control over almost none of this. Still, this is classic bully-pulpit stuff, and we expect it will resonate in state capitols all over the country. When the unions start busing in kids, parents, and teachers to rally against increases in class size or pay freezes, expect a lot of Republican governors to start quoting their good friend Arne Duncan.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and co-editor of the new book Stretching the School Dollar. Michael J. Petrilli is vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. 

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