Interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

By John King, USA - August 9, 2010

KING: The United States used to lead the world in turning out college graduates, but as President Obama pointed out today, in the space of a generation, we have fallen from first to 12th. The president's plan, we take that lead by adding eight million graduates to our current levels by the year 2020. The man in charge of getting us there is the education secretary, Arne Duncan. He's here to go "One-on-One". Put simply, we're losing.

ARNE DUNCAN, EDUCATION SECRETARY: We're losing. We have a long way to go and the president is drawing a line in the sand. He said we have to regain our spot as the world leader in college graduates. We have to educate our way to a better economy. It's the only way we're going to get there.

It is an ambitious goal. It is absolutely the right goal and every one of our strategies, early childhood, K to 12 reform, making higher education more accessible, more affordable, all of those strategies together are towards that goal of, again, leading the world in the percent of college graduates.

KING: If you look at the goal you've set out with the president, 40 percent of Americans in the 25 to 34 age group now have college degrees. You want to get to 60 percent and you want to do it in 10 years. Some would say out there it's a worthy goal. We want more of our young Americans obviously to get college degrees. They'd be better prepared, but why is this the government's job?

DUNCAN: It's all of our jobs. It's our job, it is our job to point out the challenge and it is our job to really encourage everybody, parents, teachers, community members, universities, early childhood educators. All of us have to understand what is at stake. As you know so well, John, there are no good jobs out there in today's economy for a high school dropout. There are basically no good jobs out there if you just have a high school diploma. Some form of higher education. Four-year universities, two-year community colleges, trade, technical, vocational training, some form of higher education has to be the goal for every single student who graduates from high school.

KING: If you look at the list, the rankings, United States is 12th, Canada is No. 1, South Korea No. 2, Russia, Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Norway, Israel, France, Belgium, and Australia, ahead of the United States. If you look at how much each of those countries spends as a percent of their overall economy, a percentage of GDP, the United States is smack dab in the middle. About 5.3 percent of GDP in public expenditures toward education. Norway, is at 7.2 percent, Japan, 3.5 percent. So, many would say, great goal. But if you look at that, does it have to be more money, or is it just spending what we spend, more wisely?

DUNCAN: It's both. Never just about money, it's about being much more ambitious as country. It is interesting, John, when we led the world a generation ago, with flat lines, not that we've dropped, we've just stagnated. I think we became complacent. And, frankly, I think we lost our way a little bit as a country. Other folks invested more, took this more seriously and, frankly, I think we're paying a price for this in terms of a tough economic climate today.

This is about raising our ambitions, raising our sights. If you asked any American on the street today, are you happy, are you content that we're 12th in the world on college graduates? No one is going to say that that's good enough. No one is going to say that is who we are. But unfortunately, that is-when we look in the mirror today, that's exactly where we are.

If we all work together, if we all pull together; if we understand what's at stake for our children, for education, and for our nation's long-term health and vitality, nothing is more important than making sure every single young person has a chance to enter a very competitive global marketplace and has the skills to do that. To be successful in that world today, you need some form of higher education.

KING: Why does it cost so much? The average cost of college in Canada, I know there are some subsidies involved, but the average cost in Canada, $4,500. The United States if you include two-year and four-year colleges, is about $16,200. If you look just at the average four-year college, it is about $19,000. Why is it so expensive?

DUNCAN: Well, other countries subsidize more. I spent four years in Australia. My wife is from there. She basically went to college for free. And so there is a different economic model. What's so important here for your viewers to understand is that by stopping the subsidies to banks we've added $60 billion over the next decade for Pell grants. We have tripled tuition tax credits for the middle class. So, there's a real opportunity for middle class families, for families from lower income situations to have a chance to go to college.

What I feel very good about-for the first time in a long time-we can look any nine-year-old or 10-year-old in the eye and say no matter how tough things might be in the neighborhood, or in your home, if you work hard, if your dream is to go to college, that opportunity is going to be there for you.

KING: Do you want more money in this environment, now, where people are talking more and more about the deficit, and more and more, especially in an election year where you probably have fewer Democrats in the Congress next year. People looking to get less spending in Washington, are you looking for more money?

DUNCAN: We actually have a bill coming before the House tomorrow, that passed the Senate, and would help us save-a $10-billion package that would save us 160,000 teacher jobs K to 12 this fall. We think that's absolutely important that happens. The last thing our country needs is to have 160,000 teachers, in the next couple of weeks, on the unemployment lines rather than the classroom.

So that emergency spend is critical. On the higher education side we have had this massive investment in increasing Pell grants and we are reducing loan repayments to the back end to make it much more accessible and affordable. There has been a huge, huge push, tens of billions of dollars, going in. What we need to do is we need to become more productive. We need to make sure students aren't just going to college, but they are actually graduating.

KING: So, you have had a fight with the teachers unions, at times. And that is somewhat odd with a Democratic administration. But you have had a fight with teachers' unions. We had the D.C. chancellor, Michelle Rhee on the program a short time ago, and you have a proposal now looking at the state of Wyoming. There is $8.6 million out there to turn around its schools, but they have to make some tough choices. They have to apply to state for the thing, they might have to fire teachers. They might have to shut down schools. Is that what you want to be doing at this time. Is that what you have to do? Shock the system at the bottom?

DUNCAN: As a country, John, right now, we talk about the lack of college graduates. It doesn't start, as you know, at the higher education level. Our high school dropout rate around the country is 25 percent. We're losing 1.2 million students from our schools, through streets, each year. They have no chance to compete in a global economy. Our dropout rate in the African-American Latino communities, in many areas, is 40 percent, 50 percent. This is economically unsustainable and morally unacceptable.

And so where you have very high performing schools, we need to learn from them. We need to replicate them. We need to showcase them. Where you have schools where dropouts rates are 50, 60, 70 percent, where students are falling further and further behind, the status quo is not going to get us where we need to go. We need dramatic change. We need to do the right thing by our children. We have to educate our way to a better economy.

KING: What are the responsibilities out there, for a parent, or for a local teacher, a local school administrator. Because Washington can't-maybe Washington can be part of the solution, but Washington can't fix this.

DUNCAN: We'll never fix this. The great ideas in education are never going to come from me, or frankly, from anyone else in Washington. The great ideas in education are always going to come at the local level. What we need it is great courage and great vision. For all the challenges that you and I just talked about, I'm actually incredibly optimistic. We have never had more high-performing schools, we have never had more high-performing, high-poverty schools around the country. What we have to do is make those examples of success the norm, rather than the exception. We have to take these pockets of excellence, these islands of excellence and make them systems of excellence.

That's what we're working so hard to do. But it is going to be because of the innovation, the courage, the entrepreneurial vision of great local teachers, principles, school superintendents, school boards, that is what is going to take our country where we need to go.

KING: Secretary Duncan, appreciate your time.

DUNCAN: Thanks for the opportunity.

KING: Thank you.


John King, USA

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter