June 19, 2009 — -- Arne Duncan may be the most powerful education secretary in the nation's history.
With $100 billion in stimulus funds to spend on education in the next two years, no other education secretary has had so much money to attempt to fix what ails the nation's struggling school system in such a short amount of time.
"The tremendous challenge and opportunity is to use these resources to drive change and drive reform in ways that will live for decades long beyond when the last dollar's been spent," Duncan, 44, said in an interview with ABC News.
"Just investing in the status quo isn't going to get us where we need to go."
Duncan is pushing states to scrap laws that limit charter schools, extend the school year and open schools up for community health, education and fitness programs, tie teacher pay to performance evaluations and develop honest ways to track how students and schools are stacking up.
His ambitious education agenda is already facing political challenges on Capitol Hill.
Much of the $100 billion stimulus money for education has gone to stave off public school layoffs and avert education cutbacks from state budget shortfalls.
But Duncan has reserved almost $5 billion for a discretionary incentive program, "Race for the Top," that states will begin competing for later this year.
The catch? States must prove they are committed to education reforms.
Tom Vander Ark, an education advocate and long-time friend and supporter of Duncan's, said the education secretary is facing intense political pressure from members of Congress, eager to bring a piece of that $5 billion pie home to their districts.
"The five billion in the incentive fund, many of us argue should be targeted at six or eight states that are actually reforming that can make good use of it," he said, "But Arne's facing intense pressure to spread that out like peanut butter."
He fears the Obama administration may be tempted to trade money from the $5 billion education reform fund to secure votes on Capitol Hill for health care legislation.
"There is pressure to trade the incentives fund for some health care votes," Vander Ark said, "so there's a risk of it getting caught up in the horse trading with the other big issues this year."
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a leading proponent of education reform in Congress, agrees Duncan has a political fight on his hands, but says he's the best person to achieve results.
"There will always be incrementalists fighting to preserve the status quo," Miller said. "But the political winds are shifting. There is real momentum building for the real reforms we know are needed to build a world-class American education system."
The statistics are grim.
The nation's struggling K-12 education system has a persistent achievement gap between white and and minority students, a dismal 69 percent average high school graduation rate, and U.S. students trail behind other nations in math and science proficiency.
Duncan Has Ear of Basketball Buddy President
Once a professional basketball player, the 6-foot-5-inch cabinet secretary also has the ear of President Barack Obama, a personal friend and long-time pick-up basketball buddy.
"We've played a few times since we've been here, haven't played a ton," Duncan said of the president. "We've both been a little bit busy."
Since arriving in Washington, Duncan has been on the road one or two days a week, visiting schools and colleges and meeting with students, principals and teachers.
"The solutions are never going to come from Washington," Duncan said. "So when I go out, I'm not just listening to the problems; I'm really challenging folks to come up and tell us the answers."
This fall, Duncan, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rev. Al Sharpton will embark on a five-city tour to raise awareness of the achievement gap between white and minority students.
"The gap is absolutely, morally unacceptable," Duncan said. Planning is in the early stages and no dates or places have been decided, he said.
Watered Down State Proficiency Standards
Making an end run around the Bush administration's controversial No Child Left Behind law, Duncan has argued many states and districts aren't using data to reward good teachers and some states have watered down their proficiency standards so students and parents believe they are doing much better than they are.
Despite the problems, Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, insists the states are ready for education reform.
This week he met with half the nation's governors to discuss their plans for education reform.
"I'm optimistic because these states are fundamentally not doing business as usual," he said. "What I saw and heard and felt from the governors over the past two days makes me very very hopeful about where we're going."
Duncan cited failing elementary schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, that have added a "fifth quarter" -- keeping the school open for students a month longer.
He convinced 46 of the nation's 50 governors earlier this month to sign onto a commitment to work toward common academic standards in English and language arts.
It's only a voluntary commitment, and some argue that Duncan has yet to take a real stand against about 35 states that have legislation limiting the number of charter schools, or no charter school law at all.
"As much as I like the president and secretary Duncan, it remains to be seen whether or not they're going to stand firm when the unions and some of these states push back like some of them are already doing," said Kevin Chavous, who sat on Obama's education advisory committee during the election and is a board member of DC Children First, which advocates for school vouchers.
"We really need to see if the president and the secretary are going to stand firm against these recalcitrant states who just want to stick with the status quo," he said.
But Duncan said he believes he can leverage the stimulus money into creating education reforms.
"We have unprecedented discretionary resources," Duncan said, "if we can listen well enough to invest in what works and take to scale what works and invest in best practices."
Duncan's consensus-building approach has won respect from teachers' union and others from all sides of the education reform debate.
"He's a totally straight-forward, unassuming, no-pretense kind of guy," Vander Ark said, "for good and bad, he's not a politician. ... Whether people agree with him or disagree, you can't argue with his sincerity and his integrity."
"We disagree on a number of areas but they are continuing to engage us in deep conversations," said John Stocks, deputy executive director for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union.
"All too often, during the eight years of the Bush administration we heard teachers and the unions that represent them be demonized," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 1.4 million educators, mostly in urban areas.
"I think he cares deeply about stopping this people-in-different-camps mentality and the blame game and the scapegoating," she said.
Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp said, "He expects people to come together across philosophical and political lines and work in the interest of kids."
That Duncan isn't a politician may be another challenge.
A Harvard graduate, Duncan left school for a year to tutor disadvantaged children in Chicago's South Side in a program his mother founded to help African-American children 48 years ago.
"It's in my blood," Duncan said. "We worked in a neighborhood where the families were very, very poor and pretty broken, frankly."
Duncan said he believes that children from any background can achieve with the right support.
"When we give our children real opportunities, real support, real guidance, have the highest of expectations, they can do unbelievable things," he said. "That's what drives me everyday, is knowing how much potential children have if we as adults meet them half way."
Duncan was the co-captain of Harvard's basketball team and played professional basketball in Australia for four years, where he met his wife, Karen. They have two children, Claire, 7 and Ryan, 5, who attend school in Arlington, Va.
Chicago Schools Controversy
Before Obama nominated him to his cabinet, Duncan spent seven years running the Chicago schools system, where his unconventional methods attracted controversy.
In 2004, he made potential dropouts sign a form acknowledging, "I will be more likely to rely on the state welfare system for my livelihood."
Last year he launched a program in 20 Chicago schools to pay students for grades, funded by private donations.
He raised the ire of the teachers union by closing failing Chicago schools and, he said, "moving all of the adults out."
"It's arbitrary," Stocks of the National Education Association said. "It assumes that all of the adults in the school building are not serving the needs of children, but there are better ways of turning around a school."
Added Weingarten: "What we're saying is work with teachers, not do things to them."
Criticized for Not Dumping NCLB
Duncan has already faced controversy for his desire to see more charter schools across the country and the Obama administration's opposition to school vouchers.
"When you broad-brush charter schools as being innovative and the way for reform, you discount all of the innovative efforts that are going on in the public school systems." Stocks said.
Chavous of DC Children First complained that the Obama administration caved under union pressure to scrap a voucher program in Washington that allowed thousands of children to attend a different school, a program that he said was working.
"This administration's response to this voucher issue in D.C. speaks volumes about their overall commitment to reform," Chavous said. "The only reason to be against this program is politics."
But the unions argued the voucher program in D.C. didn't live up to promised student achievements.
"The problem is that what parents liked about the voucher program was that the class sizes were smaller, the schools were safer and they think their children had a more engaging experience, all things we have actually asked to try to do in public schools," Weingarten said.
Duncan has also come under fire for not scrapping the No Child Left Behind legislation, which is up for renewal in Congress as early as the fall.
"A lot of Obama supporters hate NCLB and hoped he would throw it out," Vander Ark said. "To the dismay of many Democrats, Arne has only strengthened the choice and accountability platform that characterized the two Bush terms."
The landmark Bush administration legislation rankled Democrats by emphasizing standardized testing in math and English, and ticked off Republicans for dictating terms to states.
"We are hopeful there will be a serious look at totally overhauling the current law and redesigning the accountability system that currently exists, which is seriously flawed," Stocks said.
Duncan said NCLB was "obviously, dramatically underfunded" and said the Bush administration did itself no favors by giving states loose goals and tight testing requirements.
But he insisted that holding teachers and schools accountable is crucial.
"Hold them accountable for results but really let states and districts figure out how to get there," Duncan said.