Interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

By The Situation Room - January 4, 2011

BLITZER: One potential target of the budget acts, education. Joining us now, the education secretary Arne Duncan.

Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: I don't know if -- happy new year to you, too, as well.

"The New York Times," on the front page today, say the Republican leaders of the House, they want to cut $100 billion in domestic spending and they suggested that means about a 20 percent cut in the Transportation Department, another 20 percent cut in your Education Department.

Are you ready for that?

DUNCAN: What that would mean would be 8 million students currently receiving Pell grants wouldn't get that. So as we're desperately trying to educate our way to a better economy, send more young people to college, less young people would have those kinds of opportunities. It means less special education students, millions less special education students will be served, poor students would get less services, that's not as country what we (INAUDIBLE) --


BLITZER: So what can you really -- assuming everyone has to cut in discretionary spending -- hold on one second, cause I think -- we don't have a mike. Here we go. Here we got a mike. We're going to -- talk into that mike and see if that works.

Is that working now? All right, hold on for a second, Mr. Secretary. I'm going to coming back to you in a moment.

Let me bring in Lisa Sylvester, she's got some other news. We'll get right back to the secretary in just a moment -- Lisa.

SYLVESTER: Wolf, we want to tell you about former White House -- actually, we're going to a different story. A Cook County judge has ruled that President Obama's former right-hand man meets Chicago's residency requirement and can run for mayor of the city. The judge upheld an earlier ruling by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners in Emmanuel's favor. His opponents, if you recall, they had argued that his two-year stint in Washington disqualified him. That election is February 22cd.

And there are new fears today that U.S. ally Pakistan could descend into further unrest and violence. The influential and moderate governor of Pakistan's Punjab Province was gunned down by his own security guard. The suspect is in custody today. He allegedly assassinated his boss because the governor spoke out against Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law. Pakistan's president has declared three days of national mourning.

And authorities are ramping up security at Christian Coptic churches across Europe in the wake of the deadly New Year's Day attack on the church in Egypt. That church had been listed on an Islamist Web site. At least 16 other Coptic Churches, including four in France and six in England and Germany, are also mentioned on that Web site and some are fearing that they could be targeted as Friday's Coptic Christmas celebration approaches.

And la dolce vita, well, it just got a little bit more expensive. Tourists visiting Rome are being hit with a brand new hotel tax.

It will cost you $4 more now a night to stay at a four-and-five- star hotel in the Eternal City. The new law applies to anyone who is not a resident of Rome. The money is to help to pay for repairs and maintenance for the ancient city, but the hotels are fearing that it could scare away the tourists -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Lisa. Thanks very much.

Let's get back to our interview with Arne Duncan, the Education secretary.

Mr. Secretary, "The New York Times" suggesting Republican leaders in the House want to cut perhaps 20 percent of your budget as part of their effort to cut down $100 billion in domestic spending this year.

Are you ready for that kind of action?

ARNE DUNCAN, EDUCATION SECRETARY: That would be bad for the country, bad for our long-term economy, bad for education. Eight million young people currently going to college would receive less financial aid, less Pell Grants. We need many more graduates, we don't need people dropping out of college due to financial stress.

Millions of students with special needs wouldn't get the services they need. Poor children wouldn't get the services they need.

Wolf, we have to educate our way to a better economy. We have to invest. We have to invest wisely, we have to invest in a reform agenda. We can't afford to take a step backwards.

BLITZER: What can you afford? How much of a budget cut can the Department of Education afford, assuming what they call domestic discretionary spending has to be cut? DUNCAN: Well, this is where we need to continue to invest. We're looking to consolidate. We're looking to consolidate 38 programs into 11.

We want to be much smarter, much more targeted. But we cannot afford to deny young people opportunities to go to great elementary schools, great middle schools, great high schools, and ultimately go on to college.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about this article you wrote in "The Washington Post," because you suggested that there was an opportunity to improve education by dealing with poverty, which is the huge source (ph).

There was criticism of your article coming in from Professor Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California, saying, "Duncan gives the impression that overcoming poverty happens all the time under his administration. There is no real evidence that it happens at all."

Is there any evidence that you are overcoming this?

DUNCAN: Wolf, that's one of the biggest challenge our country is still -- folks to believe, that somehow poverty is destiny. I spent my whole life working in the inner city in a desperately poor community. I know those challenges as well or better than anyone.

Bright stars and young people from very poor communities, very tough family situations, lots of violence in the neighborhood. Despite those very real obstacles, with long-term support and guidance and real education opportunity, people go on to do extraordinarily well.

BLITZER: Is there any, like, real scientific evidence of that other than anecdotal evidence?

DUNCAN: There's evidence all over the country. You look at what Geoffrey Canada is doing to the Harlem Children's Zone, where they're basically closing the achievement gap. We've never had more high- performing, high-poverty schools around the country. That's why I'm so hopeful.

The challenge, Wolf, is those kinds of opportunities aren't at scale yet. We have to invest in those best practices, we have to create more of those opportunities. Great principals, great teachers make a huge difference in students' lives.

BLITZER: The other criticism, he says, more of this testing is a disaster. He says, "We are about to make a mistake that will cost billions and make school life even more miserable for millions of teachers and students. The only ones who will profit are the testing companies. We should be talking about reducing testing, not increasing it."

DUNCAN: We need better evaluations. And right now, in part thanks to Race to the Top, we have 44 states working together and two consortia coming up with the next generation assessments.

Teachers, parents, students want real information. They need to know, are students learning? Where are they improving? Where are they not? Where do they need more help?

Those next generation of assessments are going to help us to get there. That leadership is being provided at the local level, not by us in Washington.

Here's what's so shocking. December, "USA Today," the newspaper, had these statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. I'll read it exactly.

"Out of 34 countries, the United States ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math." That's horrendous.

DUNCAN: Wolf, that's reality. And that's why we're pushing so hard for real change, for real reform.

We cannot as a country celebrate and say we're 25th in science. In a knowledge-based, globally-competitive economy, we have to do so much better educationally, so anyone who's defending the status quo, anyone who is saying we don't need change is part of the problem.

BLITZER: And the other problem is the amount of money we spend and the results we get. Let me read to you from "USA Today."

"The United States spends more per student on average than the other countries. In the 2009 PISA study, only Luxembourg spent more per student. The report notes that countries like Estonia and Poland perform at about the same level as the United States, while spending less than half the amount per student."

DUNCAN: If you looked at what the high-performing countries are doing, there's so much we can learn -- the Singapores, the Finlands, the South Koreas.

BLITZER: How do they do it and we don't?

DUNCAN: In South Korea, Wolf, teachers are known as nation builders. We need to make teaching a revered profession. We need to do a much better job of respecting and valuing teachers. We need to bring that next generation of talent in.

In those countries, teachers are looked upon as doctors and lawyers. Somehow in our country, teachers have been disrespected, they've been devalued. We have to get away from that. With the baby boomer generation retiring, a million new teachers are needed around the country. We have an amazing opportunity to transform the workforce.

BLITZER: Because as you say, in the global marketplace, if we don't improve our education levels, we're going to go down and down and down.

DUNCAN: Jobs just continue to go overseas. We're fighting for our country. We're trying to make our country great again.

This is about nation building. The only way we get there, Wolf, is through smart investment, targeted investment, and education reform.

BLITZER: The former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, he wrote in "The Wall Street Journal" this week. He said this: "If a public school doesn't measure up, families have an unprecedented array of other options: public school choice, charter schools, vouchers for pre-K students, virtual schools, tax credit scholarships, and vouchers for students with disabilities."

Are you with Jeb Bush on all these things?

DUNCAN: What we need are great public schools. What I want is to give every single child in this country, regardless of where they live, urban, rural, suburban, a chance to go to a great public school. The overwhelming majority of our children always will go to a public school. We need to make every single one of those options a great one.

BLITZER: What if there's no great public school, and the kids -- but there's a good private school or a Catholic school in the neighborhood, but they need a voucher to go?

DUNCAN: So what we're doing, Wolf, first time around the country, as a country we're turning around 700 chronically underperforming schools. For so long, we just watched 40 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent of children drop out. Seven hundred schools are being turned around as we speak, schools that, historically, were dropout factories.

You're going to see very, very different results. We can't just save one or two children, Wolf. We have to save that whole school, and ultimately that entire community.

In far too many areas, those dropout factories have been there for decades -- 10, 20, 30 years. The country now is finally having the courage, and we're providing the resources to challenge that status quo.

BLITZER: Let me wrap up with a new reality here in Washington, a Republican majority in the House. They want to slash domestic spending, including in the Department of Education, your department.

Where do you go from here?

DUNCAN: We all work together. I think there's great leadership, Republicans, Democrats, in the House, great leadership in the Senate. No one is satisfied with the status quo. We have to educate our way to a better economy. We all have to come together for --


BLITZER: Can you work with John Boehner? DUNCAN: I have great respect for John Boehner, great respect for John Kline, Senator Enzi, Senator Alexander. There's great relationships in the House and the Senate on the Republican side. We've had great relationships. We need to continue to do the right thing for our children and the right thing for our country.

BLITZER: Good luck.

DUNCAN: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: Arne Duncan is the secretary of Education.

Appreciate it very much.

DUNCAN: Thank you.


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