September 8 2009
Vicki E. Alger
Last week Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson hosted a Town Hall with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. A smaller Leadership Forum, "Education that Works: Ideas for Sacramento," preceded the public event where U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered some very encouraging remarks. He spoke of the "adult dysfunction" that "often hurts kids." Duncan's solution is to get out of the current "compliance-model bureaucracy [and] into the business of what works." Further, he urged "investment in organizations that challenge the status quo." And what is status quo?
Well, in California's case it's the equivalent of "a football stadium [full] of students," about 70,000 Duncan explained, who drop out of school. This should matter to people outside of the not-so-Golden State because California educates around 1/8 of all American students-so our dysfunction is the country's dysfunction. Despite an annual education budget that exceeds nearly all other states' entire general fund budgets, California student performance ranks around 48th nationally. But what ideas could politicians from the District, home to the country's worst-performing public schooling system, possibly have for politicians in Sacramento, whose system is only nearly worst? Given Duncan's tough talk, I thought he might actually answer, so I asked:
Mr. Secretary, what role do parents have to play in education reform, particularly those in D.C. whose children had to return to public schools that weren't working for them because their Opportunity Scholarships were revoked; and is the administration looking to places such as Florida, which have nearly closed racial achievement gaps and reversed the dropout tide?
Secretary Duncan responded that parents have to be a part of the solution (mostly by making sure their children watch less TV); he believes in competition (among states for more federal funding, that is, not among schools for students); and he thinks we have to get "beyond our comfort zone." Yet Mr. Duncan couldn't get beyond his own given his silence about parental school choice in Florida, D.C., or anywhere else for that matter.
But maybe my questions just weren't clear enough, so I'll try again:
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program should be a national model of "what works" according to evidence from your own department, Mr. Secretary. So when does this administration plan to stop its own "adult dysfunction" that sustains the "status quo" and "hurts kids" right in its own back yard?
Mr. Secretary, when is this administration going to stand up-or at least, speak out-for the 216 D.C. students whose Opportunity Scholarships you rescinded?
And finally, Mr. Secretary, when does this administration intend to start making those students' parents "part of the solution" by restoring their power to choose their children's schools as you, the President, and Members of Congress do?
Perhaps Mr. Duncan will respond to more direct questions like these. Or maybe President Obama will have some answers in his much-anticipated speech today. Regardless, Sacramento should look to places like Florida where education that works is a reality-not just an idea.