Duncan Faces Political Battle Over Education Reform

"This Week" Spotlight: Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the fight for reform.

ByABC News
June 18, 2009, 6:54 PM

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.