Education secretary says students in peril


As California schools brace for billions of dollars in budget cuts, the nation’s top education official warned Friday that the state’s students were in peril, and he challenged politicians and educators to embrace difficult reforms.

“California used to lead the nation in education,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaking to dozens of mayors, superintendents and school board trustees at San Francisco City Hall.

“Honestly, California has lost its way. The long-term consequences of that are very troubling.”


Duncan’s day-long visit to California was part of a 15-state listening tour intended to help shape the Obama administration’s proposal to rework the federal No Child Left Behind reform law. But coming three days after voters rejected ballot measures that would have shored up the state’s finances, leaving schools facing $5.3 billion in cuts over the next 13 months, budget concerns dominated the day’s discussions.

“Here in the state of California, we’re in a real dilemma,” said Carlos Garcia, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District. “We’re struggling to stay afloat.”

Duncan repeatedly told state leaders and educators that California is at a crossroads, facing a “moment of opportunity and a moment of crisis.”

“Despite how tough things are financially, it’s often at times of crisis we get the reforms we need,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Education is in the midst of administering $100 billion in federal education dollars contained in the economic stimulus package approved by Congress earlier this year. California has received about $4.3 billion of that money but could get billions more, depending on how the state uses the initial funding.

Duncan said that although stopping teacher layoffs and reducing class sizes are important, the money must also be used to drive reform, such as using student achievement data to evaluate teacher effectiveness and turning around the most troubled schools.

“Investing in the status quo is not going to move the ball down the field,” Duncan told hundreds of people at a San Francisco School Alliance benefit luncheon.

He also warned that states that use stimulus money to replace state funding -- instead of complementing it -- will disqualify themselves from future funding.

Charles Weis, superintendent of Santa Clara County schools and the president of the Assn. of California School Administrators, raised a gnawing concern among educators around the state: Would Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed $5.3 billion in cuts to schools make the state ineligible for future funding, such as the $4.35 billion in competitive grants in the “Race to the Top” fund?

Duncan demurred, but state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell later said he feared the cuts could jeopardize the state’s eligibility.

Duncan challenged state and local leaders to tackle the most difficult reforms, such as reconstituting failing high schools, evaluating teachers based on their students’ performance and paying more to teachers who work in challenging communities.

“We have lacked the political courage and we have lacked the will to do the right thing by children,” he said. “Our dysfunctional adult relationships have hurt children in far too many places.”

Duncan assessed several facets of the state’s education policy, praising California standards as more rigorous than those of other states. But he faulted the state for significantly underfunding schools.

Duncan slammed Schwarzenegger’s proposal to lop seven days off the school year, saying students need to be spending significantly more time in class to close the achievement gap.

He also said the state’s reluctance to use student achievement data to evaluate teachers -- rewarding the best and getting rid of the worst -- was “mind-boggling.”

“The data doesn’t tell the whole truth, but the data doesn’t lie,” he said. “This firewall between students and teachers is bad for children and bad for education.”

Earlier Friday, Duncan met privately with state officials to discuss the state’s data systems.

After years of delays, California is in the initial stage of creating a system capable of tracking student performance over time, which will offer a much more accurate picture of student achievement and failure than currently exists.

Duncan also called for dramatically reforming “drop-out factories,” schools that have failed their students for years with little improvement in achievement, and said that more resources are not always the answer.

“More of the same isn’t going to make things better,” he said. He noted that during his tenure as Chicago’s public schools chief, he completely remade two dozen troubled schools -- replacing administrators and teachers -- and saw dramatic improvements. “We have to have courage to start fresh and start over.”

Duncan also spoke at UC San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus and visited Paul Revere Elementary School, where students peppered him with questions about President Obama and the two men’s shared hobby: basketball.(Duncan played for Harvard University, was cut by the Boston Celtics and played professionally in Australia for four years.)

“When you play basketball with the president, who wins?” asked second-grader Jonathan Lopez, 8.

“Everyone asks me that,” Duncan replied. “We usually don’t play one-on-one. We usually play on the same team. We do pretty good.”