Print this Article

Secretary Duncan: Another $6 Billion in Federal Race to the Top Funding in the Pipeline

By Jeff Hudson - September 11, 2009

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a fast tour through Sacramento last Thursday, talking up the federal government’s Race to the Top (RTTT) program, with an eye toward the special legislative session currently underway in Sacramento to consider bills that would increase California’s eligibility for a portion of the roughly $4 billion in funding under the initial round of RTTT. 

Duncan said another $6 billion in RTTT funding will become available over the next two-to-five years.

Over the course of a few hours, Duncan participated in multiple meetings and media events, including:

  1. A midday session with legislators at the State Capitol.
  2. An early afternoon “beginning-of-the-school-year” pep rally at the Guild Theater, which is managed by the St. HOPE Academy. St. HOPE also runs a nearby charter school founded by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.  Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (a Republican) shared the stage with Duncan and Johnson (both Democrats) at this event.
  3. A 3 p.m. session at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, attended by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, several local superintendents, representatives from UC Davis School of Education, charter school advocacy groups, civil rights groups and others.
  4. A 5 p.m. town hall forum, also at the library, co-hosted by Johnson, and attended by a larger group of community leaders, educators, and members of the general public.

Johnson – a trim 43-year-old who was a star in the National Basketball League – clearly relished playing host to Duncan – an athletic 44-year-old who played basketball professionally in Australia.  The two joked about suiting up and shooting hoops after their day of meetings, and humorously challenged O’Connell (age 57 and slender, if not noted as an athlete) to join them.

Johnson and Duncan have some political turf in common as well.  They’re both from urban settings (Sacramento in Johnson’s case, Chicago in Duncan’s) and they’ve both supported charter schools within the context of large urban school districts.

Duncan took some care to put his policy toward charter schools in context: “I’m not a fan of charters, I’m a fan of good charters,” he said at the 3 p.m. meeting.  “This is not ‘Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.’  This is picking the best of the best” from among the various ideas and programs advanced in the charter school movement.

At the same time, Duncan said he wants to “give charter operators real autonomy, free them from bureaucracy,” and at the same time “couple that autonomy with real accountability.  I opened lots of charters (as CEO of the Chicago school system) but I also closed three for academic accountability.”

Surveying the national scene for K-12 education, Duncan said “Our dropout rate is unacceptable . . . We can dramatically decrease the dropout rate, increase the graduation rate, increase the number of kids ready for college.”  He said the dropout rate among particular ethnic groups is a significant cause for concern, adding that “there are about 2,000 high schools (nationally) that produce half our dropout rate, 75 percent from the African American and Latino community.  That’s not good enough.”

Duncan fielded questions about using student testing data to evaluate teachers, earning a laugh when he acknowledged that “this is one of my favorite subjects in California.”  (Duncan and O’Connell have differed publicly over this issue in recent weeks.)

“Under California’s evaluation system, there’s almost no correlation between student performance and teacher evaluation.  I think that’s a problem,” Duncan said.  “How students do (in school) should be part of how teachers are evaluated.”

“I think it’s an equally bad problem if (teacher performance) is 100 percent evaluated on student performance.  We should take other things into account, peer evaluation, principal evaluation, etc.  Right now we act like student achievement has nothing to do with how teachers are evaluated.  There’s this middle ground that we need to move to.”

“California is at this fork in the road, I’m going to watch with great interest” to see what the state does, Duncan said.  While crediting the state for having “high standards” that students are expected to achieve, Duncan said that California “needs to take the next step, or you’re going to be on the sidelines.”

Duncan held out something of a carrot and stick.  “Race to the Top is about $4 billion” in funding at the present time, he said.  “But we have at least another $6 billion in additional discretionary funding” that will be made available later on, he added.  “That’s north of $10 billion for technology and data systems. . . . You will never have this kind of opportunity again, never have $10 billion again” in this kind of federal funding, he said.

Duncan was referring indirectly, perhaps, to recent statements by the California Teachers Association, which has put a prominent box on its webpage with the headline “Don't Rush into ‘Race to the Top,’ ” followed by the statement “The proposed Race to the Top is repeating the past mistakes of No Child Left Behind, including an over-reliance on test scores as an accurate measure of achievement.”

Without mentioning the CTA, Duncan said “I don’t focus on test scores, I look at gain, year after year.”

“California can come in during the first round (of RTTT funding), or the second round, or none,” Duncan said in conclusion. “California needs to figure out what it wants to do.”

Editor's Note: Jeff Hudson is the editor of EdBrief and an award-winning education reporter and writer in print, radio and television media.