President Obama’s first education secretary Arne Duncan has written a book entitled How Schools Work, and last Sunday he talked about his work at Politics and Prose. My wife and I would have liked to be there but my grandson Oliver turned five years old and we were instead grateful to be at his ice skating birthday party watching his one year old brother Emmett.
The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss was in attendance, and as would be expected had much to complain about concerning his remarks. She was never a fan of Mr. Duncan because he advocated policies when he was in office with which she strenuously disagrees such as the expansion of the number of charter schools, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and use of the Common Core curriculum. But there was one paragraph in her article about his work as United States Education Secretary that really caught my attention.
“What he didn’t do, which some in the education world argue is the most important thing he could have attacked, is this: attempt to change the way the United States funds its public schools. School districts rely in large part on property taxes, which guarantees that poor communities have schools with fewer resources. Federal funding aimed at closing the gap doesn’t come close, and, so, in this country, standardized test scores tell us only where a child lives, making reforms that place high stakes on the scores nonsensical.”
It is tragically true that in 2018 for far too many students standardized test scores tell us only where a child lives. But a policy that dramatically changes this equation, private school vouchers, is attacked at every opportunity by Ms. Strauss and Mr. Duncan. When he served in Mr. Obama’s cabinet, Mr. Duncan took every step at his disposal to shutdown D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the private school voucher plan created by Congress for kids living in poverty. He so restricted the number of families that could participate that instead of continuing to administer the awards, Joseph E. Robert, Jr. closed the Washington Scholarship Fund, the organization he had founded to provide private school tuition for low-income scholars. Here is the letter Mr. Robert sent to Mr. Duncan in 2009 about his decision.
This is what I would have asked him about if I could have attended the book forum. I would have wanted to know how he could sleep at night knowing that while his children received a high quality education, be personally blocked hundreds of young people without means from the same chance.