U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke to Washington lawmakers and top officials via video conference Monday, saying the state's education system is illogical with an organization that isn't a viable business plan.
Duncan’s appearance was at the invitation of Gov. Chris Gregoire and in support of the governor’s struggling plan to consolidate most of the state’s education work into a new Department of Education, by going from eight education agencies to one.
The plan has gotten mixed reviews from lawmakers and has attracted an alternative plan approved by the House that would start with a study of how to streamline the state’s education system, rather than diving right into a new one. The governor’s plan has passed only the Senate Education Committee but is still alive in the Legislature because it concerns a budget issue.
Duncan spoke to and answered questions from a group of lawmakers from both parties, plus the governor and Washington’s superintendent of public instruction, who could get a new supervisor under Gregoire’s plan. He also reached out to Washington voters through an opinion piece on the same subject last week in The Seattle Times.
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Duncan began his remarks by calling for more speed on education reform and repeatedly said there have been enough studies. “We have to get better faster. I just want to see the entire country share this sense of urgency,” he said.
Duncan expressed his ongoing concern about high school dropouts, competition from abroad and the lack of good jobs for kids who do not continue their education beyond high school.
Nearly everyone agrees that the biggest challenges for kids are during transitions — from preschool to kindergarten, high school to college and so on — but the way to help students avoid getting behind during these times is open to debate.
Gregoire and Duncan have said that getting rid of the silos and combining all the education stages in one department would streamline the process and help people work together to solve problems that affect them all.
A spokesman for the U.S. Education Department said Duncan’s efforts on behalf of the governor are part of his ongoing efforts to support reform wherever it’s happening. Spokesman Justin Hamilton said Gregoire’s plan fits nicely with Duncan’s ideas for getting rid of inefficiencies.
Gregoire has emphasized that her idea is not focused on saving money, but a preliminary financial analysis estimates it would save the state more than $500,000 in the 2011-2013 biennium.
She handed out a policy brief Monday that focuses on the costs associated with not consolidating. For example, in the 2006-07 school year, 3,891 students repeated kindergarten or first grade in Washington, costing the state $10 million a year. Gregoire said this happens because some children do not arrive in kindergarten ready to learn.
Another cost of the education silos, according to Gregoire, is the lack of preparation in high school for college. More than half the students at community and technical colleges, who graduated from high school in 2008, took a remedial course in college their first year. The cost to taxpayers for those courses is $17 million a year.
Duncan commended the governor for strategic thinking about education reform and lawmakers for being willing to hold difficult discussions with open minds.
After the forum, several lawmakers said the discussion hadn’t changed their minds about the governor’s proposal but that they did like some of the budget cutting and reform ideas Duncan suggested.
“For me right now the focus on our education budgets in a long and deep recession is my priority. Certainly good policy at the same time. I’m not sure this particular item slips ahead of those two,” said Rep. Marcie Maxwell, D-Renton.
Rep. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said he appreciated the way Duncan framed the debate.
“And the policies he espouses are things we should take seriously in our state,” he added.