Interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

By The Situation Room - August 21, 2009

WOLF BLITZER: A disturbing warning today from a top official of the World Health Organization. He predicts there soon will be -- and I'm quoting now -- "a global explosion of swine flu." He warns that most countries could see the number of cases double every three to four days, this crisis potentially playing out at the start of the new school year as well.

We're joined now by the education secretary, Arne Duncan.

Tom Foreman is here as well.

Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for coming in.

But, Tom, set this up, because a lot of parents and grandparents, they're nervous about kids going back to school right now, as the flu season gets going.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, a very difficult time for this to be happening. We have an awful lot of people across this country.

And let's look at some of the areas down here. Alabama has been hit by cases already. Now, you have different headlines coming out there about the degree to which they'll be able to get vaccines to people, how people will handle those vaccines as they take them on throughout this process.

Up further this way, we can go toward Delaware. We've got people talking about using hand sanitizers, that sort of thing, throughout the schools.

I guess the fundamental question we start with, Mr. Secretary, is this doesn't represent a particularly unified approach, but a state by state, district by district approach. And there are a lot of districts in this country.

How do you handle this?

ARNE DUNCAN, EDUCATION SECRETARY: Well, we're -- we're trying to provide guidance to everyone. I really come at this as a parent first. I have two young children. Whether you're five and seven like mine and whether you're sending your child to college for the first thing, I think every parent wants what I want -- you want your children to be safe and you want them to keep them learning.

So we're trying to put out very clear guidance, making sure we practice prevention first, we have close machine monitoring and that going forward, we want schools and universities to be sites where you can get the vaccination once they become available in October.

BLITZER: If -- if you're a parent out there and swine flu starts creeping into your kid's school, is there a specific percentage of how many cases there are before the school shuts down?

Is this just a local or state decision or does the federal government have a role in this?

FOREMAN: Now, he's a percentage for that.


FOREMAN: Zero to 100 percent, where would you put the line on here?

DUNCAN: Well, there is not one specific percentage. The big thing first is if your child is sick, don't send them to school. So, again, this is really about prevention on the front end. And we want to keep -- we want to keep schools open as much as possible. We want to keep students learning.

Keep the children home. We're asking employers to be, you know, compassionate about this. If parents have to take a day off of work, if a college student misses a midterm exam, be thoughtful about that.

So the biggest thing is, as much as we can, we want to keep colleges, you know, elementary schools, high schools open.

BLITZER: Are there federal guidelines -- 25 percent, 10 percent?


FOREMAN: If my kid is in school and I get down here, if I end up with, let's say, down here, 12 percent...

DUNCAN: There isn't a...

FOREMAN: -- 25 percent...

DUNCAN: There isn't a specific percent yet. But again, as much as we can, we want to keep schools open. As long as teachers can teach and as long as students can attend, we want to try and keep those schools open, particularly on the elementary side. We have many students who get their only good food of the day during the school day.

BLITZER: But what I hear you saying is that there are federal guidelines, if you will, but it's really up to the local school districts to make these decisions, is that right?

DUNCAN: Absolutely, local school districts working with their local health officials. And there is going to be very much based at the local level. Absolutely. We want to empower them with great facts to make the right decision for their community.

BLITZER: Tom wants to switch gears and pick your brain on another important subject involving education.

FOREMAN: I wanted to ask you about another subject. It's the question of charter schools. You talk about this idea of local decisions. One of the complaints you're facing right now, particularly when it comes to funding, is that some of the stimulus money is being keyed to the willingness of states to take on more charter schools.

Why do you believe in these so much?

BLITZER: And before you answer it, explain what a charter school is, because some of our viewers don't know.

DUNCAN: I think it's very, very important to explain. It's good. Charter schools are public schools. They're our schools. They're accountable to us. They're our tax dollars. They serve our children.

What we want is more good charters. I'm not a fan of charters, I'm a fan of good charters. And the more we're creating options and new opportunities for parents, particularly in historically underserved communities, we think that's very, very important.

FOREMAN: And let's look at exactly what you're talking about with charters here. When you look at a charter school in this country right now, a charter school, by and large, for people at home, it's funded by taxes just like a public school. It often has somewhat specialized rules. It's not the same rules that everybody else is playing by and often for a targeted population.

You know the complaint -- the people who are in the regular public schools say, yes, no matter how you do it, this siphons off money, it gets specialized results and it makes the public schools look worse. A lot of teachers don't like this.

DUNCAN: Right. Right.

FOREMAN: Some parents don't like it.

DUNCAN: And again, where I fundamentally disagree is when it comes to -- keep this up here.

FOREMAN: Sure. Yes, sure.

DUNCAN: What many of them do is they are open longer days -- longer days, longer weeks, longer years. Our children desperately need more time. When we see very, very high performing schools, the common denominator often is much longer days, longer weeks, longer years. I think we can learn a lot from that.

Target populations are often very much schools, communities, children at risk. And when I was a C.O. Of the Chicago public schools, we put almost all the charters into historically under served communities.

Let me begin really clear.

How do you get good charter schools?

Three things have to happen. This is not let a thousand flowers bloom. We only let the best of the best open schools. It should be a very rigorous, competitive process. The chance to educate our children is really a sacred obligation. FOREMAN: Let's make a note of this. He said that, first of all, it should be just the best.

DUNCAN: High bar.


DUNCAN: Not a thousand flowers bloom. And in many places, charters haven't worked because there wasn't a high bar.


DUNCAN: Secondly, once you pick the best of the best, two things have to happen. You have to give these charter school operators real autonomy. These are, by definition, educated -- educated entrepreneurs, education entrepreneurs and innovators. You have to free them from the bureaucracy.

And, third, you have to couple that autonomy with real accountability. And we need to...


DUNCAN: ...we need to replicate and learn from the good charters. The bad charters, we have to close them down. I challenged a -- I challenged the charter school community, saying we have too many third rate charters out there. Let's close them down.

BLITZER: Is it true in the charter schools, the parents are much more involved in the kids' education than in the regular public schools?

DUNCAN: I -- no, I don't think that's true. You have phenomenal parental participation in traditional schools and in charters. And you have both in charters and in traditional schools not enough parents engaged.

One thing, Wolf, I think we have to do as a country and as the president has been so forthright and powerful on this -- everyone has to step up and do more. Parents have to turn those TVs off. And I'm sorry to say that on a TV show. Parents have to be reading to their children. As we go back to school now, they need to be meeting their teachers, exchanging home phone numbers. We need more parental engagement at every level.

FOREMAN: But how do you feel, when you see headlines like this on the Web from people out there who are criticizing you, parent groups, some teacher groups. Some are very much in your corner. There's no question. But there are others who are saying no, what you're doing is an extension of No Child Left Behind, you're just not calling it that.

DUNCAN: Right. Well, this has nothing to do with No Child Left Behind. What I think is to interesting, Tom, is that the wealthy of our country have had multiple options for education for decades, you could argue for centuries. Poor families and poor communities have often had no choices -- no options. And something is really wrong with that.

The more we can empower parents -- give them two, three, four, five good schools to choose from, let them figure out where they want to go, we can't do enough of that.

The final thing I'll say on charters is the high performing schools have long waiting lists. And I think our job is to listen to children, to listen to parents, that if something is working, let's replicate it, let's learn from it and let's give more children those kinds of options.

BLITZER: All right. We've got to go, but I just want to very quickly -- very quickly, for parents who are worried about the swine flu and kids going back to school, how worried should they be, looking ahead to the fall semester?

DUNCAN: We need to take this very seriously. We're hoping for the best, but we're absolutely preparing for the worst.

So three things -- prevention, close monitoring and long-term, let's look for that vaccination coming in October.

BLITZER: Let's hope for the best...


BLITZER: ...and prepare for the worst.

Thanks very much, Mr. Secretary, for coming in.

DUNCAN: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thanks very much to you, as well.

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