The Plank

How Daring Is Duncan?

Clay Risen pointed
this morning that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may have
kick-started an early policy fight with his comments this week on D.C. school vouchers. Indeed, the education blogosphere has been buzzing with his support for
allowing students who are already getting vouchers to stay in their private
schools. "I don't think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they're
happy and safe and satisfied and learning," he said. (Duncan indicated, however, that he doesn't
support vouchers programs in the long run.)

Over at the Fordham Institute's blog Flypaper, Mike
points out that Duncan
went on to say, "We need to be more ambitious. The goal
shouldn't be to save a handful of children. The goal should be to dramatically
change the opportunity structure for entire neighborhoods of kids." Petrilli
aptly notes that this sounds a great deal like language used by Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone, a
New York-based program designed to transform the lives of entire neighborhoods
of children through schools, health clinics, and other local services. At its
core, Harlem Children's Zone focuses on charter
, which education reformers strongly support. (It's worth noting
that while Obama has backed charter schools publicly, all funding for charters
was shorn from the stimulus bill.)

It does appear that Harlem Children's
Zone and similar pioneering programs are informing Duncan's approach to policy. For instance, in
the most recent issue of Chicago
, the education
secretary had this to say:

Q: Obviously you're familiar with what [Geoffrey
Canada is] doing.

A: Yes. I'm going to create 20 Harlem
Children's Zones around the country. I am.

Q: Really? Do you think you'll face
opposition to the federal role expanding in that way?

A: I don't care. I'm going to fund it.

That's pretty bold (and encouraging!) talk,
particularly in the face of congressional and union opposition to broadening
reform efforts that have only been tested on a small scale--like the Harlem
Children's Zone. But Duncan
has been on a bold streak lately. The
Washington Post reported
that the education secretary plans to use some of the stimulus money
to "adopt on a grander scale ideas that are producing results on a trial basis in
some locales." Duncan
praised longer school days instituted by some charter schools, urged that clear
standards for student achievement be created, and backed reformers' pet issue
of merit pay. "We also have to make it easier to get rid of teachers
when student achievement isn't happening," Duncan said.

Duncan's public campaign in favor of
reform would make it seem that he's willing to buck (at least in part) the traditional
Democratic establishment concerned with bolstering teachers unions, and to
dismiss those Republicans concerned with keeping the federal government's
education role in check. It's a heartening sign for reformers who are still
nervous about where Obama will come down on education's most pressing issues. But,
at this point, it's still just rhetoric. As stimulus and budget funds are doled
out in the coming months and years, it will be interesting to see where dollars
actually go, and whether Duncan
is successful at matching his early, audacious words with innovative actions.

UPDATE: Check out this video of Obama praising the Harlem Children's Zone, and this list of skeptical questions from blogger and former Senate education staffer Alexander Russo regarding HCZ's value and the prospects of its expansion.   

--Seyward Darby

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