Q&A: Education Secretary Arne Duncan Talks State Aid and No Child Left Behind

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Jeff Swensen / The New York Times

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan greets educators at a school in Pittsburgh, on Sept. 7, 2011.

The Senate voted down a piece of President Obama’s jobs bill Thursday night that would have provided $35 billion in aid to states to prevent government layoffs and increase hiring. The Department of Education says the measure could save or create nearly 400,000 teaching jobs, but so far it has failed to advance in the Senate both as part of a larger stimulus package last week and in Thursday’s 50-50 standalone vote. TIME talked to Education Secretary Arne Duncan before the vote about the its implications and the current debate over rewriting No Child Left Behind.

I understand you’re on the road right now, selling this part of the plan?

I’m out traveling the country and everywhere I go there’s just tremendous need. Folks are hurting out here. I was in Milwaukee recently and they’ve gone there from 100 arts educators across the city’s elementary schools to 11, so a 90% reduction in arts teachers. I was in Pittsburgh recently and there they are contemplating eliminating all after school programs and all extracurriculars. Nobody wants to do these things —we know it’s terrible for children, terrible for education, terrible for the country—but that’s the situation they’re in.

If state aid can’t get through the Senate, how big of a failure is that?

I think we can all agree we have to educate our way to a better economy — that’s the only way we’re going to do it. So we’re hurting our country long-term at the same time. If it’s bad for children, if it’s bad for our countries economic future — we’re cutting off our nose despite our face here. The stakes here are high. Students are working hard, teachers are going above and beyond the call — no one’s making excuses, they just need a little help. We don’t want to see class size skyrocket. We don’t want to see arts and after-school and extracurriculars being eliminated. None of this stuff is going to help move the country in the right direction.

So, what’s the next step?

I’m going to keep pushing this thing really hard. As you get outside the dysfunction of Washington there’s tremendous agreement. I urge Congressional leaders to spend less time in Washington and more time in schools talking to children, talking to teachers, talking to parents. Their stories are poignant, they’re compelling, they hit you hard. I was at a school in Virginia last week. It’s a very high-performing school, but the science lab is older than when I went to high school. So the kids there literally can’t take AP classes because they simply don’t have access to the technology they need. These are students who are working extraordinarily hard and are very serious about their education, but we’re just not giving them a chance to compete on a level playing field. I just can’t believe that’s what we want for our country or for our students.

The private sector has come back a bit, but I know the public sector is still struggling. In fact, your department has said two-third of all local government jobs losses in the past 12 months have been teachers and education personnel. What effect is that having on education?

It’s putting districts under financial stress that they haven’t seen in decades. We’re very worried about losing as many as another 300,000-to-400,000 jobs moving forward. I want teachers in the classroom, not on the unemployment line. I don’t want children to have to worry if their teachers are going to be gone in November or December.

Let’s talk for a minute about Senator Harkin’s bill. Is this as good at it’s going to get when it comes to rewriting No Child Left Behind?

For me, it’s always been about two things. Of course, it’s about saving jobs, but it’s also about driving reforms as well. We can’t just invest in the status quo. We have to invest in a very different vision of what education can and should be and make these two things work hand-in-hand together. To take a step back on reform doesn’t make any sense to me.

A lot of what you wanted in that bill was stripped or scaled back. What will happen now?

We’ll continue to talk and to work. I was pleased that folks are working together in a bipartisan way, but we want to make sure we’re driving reform and not perpetuating the status quo in which education in the U.S. is stagnating. We have to accelerate the rate of progress. And, understanding what a huge deal great teachers and great principals make in students lives, I don’t know why we’re afraid of that conversation. We have to talk about success in education — that’s what this is about. We have to stop treating everyone as interchangeable widgets. I’m in schools all over the country with teachers who are making a huge difference in student’s lives and to not recognize success, to not reward it, to not incentivize it, and to not tolerate failure on the other end, doesn’t make any sense to me.