Three Thoughts About Secretary Duncan’s ESEA Speech

Overachieving Andy already beat me to the punch with ten thoughts about the secretary’s speech yesterday. Rather than try to compete, I’m going to keep it simple and stick to three. Anyway, who has time for ten of anything?

1. Secretary Duncan deserves kudos for the respectful tone he struck. Unlike, say, Jonah Edelman, who just last week likened critics of today’s heavy-handed federal role in education to the states-rights segregationists of the 1950s, Duncan found a way to disagree with Republicans without being disagreeable. (I should add that Jonah is a friend whom I like and respect very much; his comments were uncharacteristically harsh.)

2. Amen for focusing on the progress that public schools are making. My favorite line of the speech was this one: “It is striking that black and Latino nine-year-olds are doing math today at about the level that their thirteen-year-old counterparts did in the 1970s.” That’s incredible—and true. He went on to celebrate other markers of progress: “A young Hispanic person is now half as likely to drop out of high school, and twice as likely to be enrolled in college. The number of black and Hispanic students taking AP exams increased nearly fivefold. For the first time, four out of five students are completing high school on time.” I wouldn’t give Uncle Sam the credit for all of this (and neither did Duncan), but I’m glad he reminded the country that education reform is working. We don’t say that enough.

3. There’s no veto threat that I can see. This is crucial, because the veto pen is about all the administration has left in its arsenal. Chairman Lamar Alexander is clearly setting the agenda for ESEA reauthorization; without a “clear line in the sand,” Republicans will listen politely to the secretary and then go about their business. That’s not to say that a dramatically slimmed-down ESEA is in the bag; the veto threat might appear later. But it means to me that the administration is leaving itself room to sign a bill that would give heartburn to its allies in the reform and civil-rights communities. In other words, ESEA reauthorization might actually happen!

– Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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