Ten questions for the Secretary of Education

These are heady times in education policy. The $110 billion in education stimulus spending and tens of billions more in the omnibus budget have launched a frenzy of activity. Meanwhile, President Obama gave a handsome and well-received speech last week to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce which drew plaudits from both reformers and the teachers' unions--no mean feat.

The point man for the Obama administration's efforts, the youthful, Harvard-educated, well-spoken Arne Duncan, has quickly become an icon in the celebrity-starved world of education policy. Indeed, at his Senate confirmation hearing, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) opined, "Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe you are the best." Watching Secretary Duncan operate in the early days of an administration on a self-described mission to transform education, a slew of questions have emerged. Chalk it up to a restless mind, but here are ten queries that I would very much like to hear the Secretary answer.

1. While making the case for the stimulus package, you repeatedly cited a University of Washington study that reported 600,000 jobs were at stake. Indeed, the first directive in your Department's guidance on stimulus spending is "spend funds quickly to save and create jobs." Yet, you've also indicated a concern about wasteful spending and ensuring that the money is well-spent. Would you regard it as a problem if the money is being spent inefficiently but is creating jobs? If yes, what are you prepared to do to stop it?

2. The stimulus bill creates an "Invest in What Works and Innovation Fund" through which your Department is to fund programs in order to "scale up what works." However, we know that much of "what works" today consists of elite charter schools bolstered by talented staff, missionary zeal, and philanthropic support. These commodities are in limited supply, and history shows that early successes fueled by them are tough to replicate at scale. How will you ensure that funding "what works" doesn't slosh dollars into boutique programs that are terrific--but don't easily scale? 

3. The President announced his intention to "scrub" the budget for wasteful or inefficient programs. Which programs have been identified in the Education Department?

4. In Chicago, despite the backing of perhaps the nation's strongest mayor, an energetic business and civic leadership, and the entrepreneurial Chicago Education Fund, it appears that most of your successes entailed introducing reforms like merit pay pilot programs and charter schools on top of and around the existing school system. Is this accurate? Do you think the "on top of and around" strategy is viable for transforming K-12 schooling across the country?

5. The President's call for "performance pay" was met with agreement by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association--because they say he is proposing the kind of pay reform that they like. Do you think it possible to craft a substantial, game-changing merit pay plan that the AFT and NEA will endorse? Your time in Chicago was marked by relatively collegial relations with the Chicago Teachers Union. What was your secret?

6. You and the President have touted the $5 billion for preschool in the stimulus, arguing that high-quality early childhood programs can make a big difference. The premise is reasonable but there is scant evidence of such programs delivering big, sustained benefits for large numbers of children. How can we be confident that the money will fund difference-making programs and not simply pad enrollment or staffing levels? And what are you prepared to do if it's the latter?

7. Both you and the President have championed charter schools, and the President called last week for states to remove caps on the allowable number of charters. As you know from experience, there are many less formal restrictions than caps that also hinder charter schools, including unfriendly state and federal regulations, facilities headaches, and teacher certification policies. Do you intend to use your office and bully pulpit to spotlight those barriers and, when possible, to remove them?

8. You have supported more uniform national standards. As you recall, an ambitious push for national standards in the 1990s quickly and messily unraveled. In light of disputes over the merits of "21st century" skills, which the President has explicitly advocated, and concerns that good standards might be crowded out by bad ones, how confident are you that such a reform would end well? How would you know if the effort goes off the rails, and would we be able to limit the fallout if it does?

9. The President has said to the nation's governors and mayors that if they don't spend the stimulus funds wisely that he will "call them out and put a stop to it." In your view, how would we know if these funds are misspent? What is an example of misspending that you would deem egregious enough that you might say, "Mr. President, we need to get those dollars back"?

10. The President has talked about the importance of every American attending at least one year of postsecondary study. History suggests that universal access tends to encourage a decline in rigor and the relaxation of standards. Does that possibility worry you? If so, how do you intend to police against such concerns?

Well, Mr. Secretary, what say you?

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and co-host of the Education Gadfly Podcast.

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