Ask Education Secretary Arne Duncan

BY SHAWN GUDE | APRIL 01, 2010 7:30 AM

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For engaged college students, it’s a unique opportunity. After all, it’s not every day you get to question a Cabinet official.

The Daily Iowan is participating in a forum sponsored by the Huffington Post in which college students will have the chance to ask U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Melody Barnes, the White House’s top domestic national-policy adviser, questions about education policy. To do it, though, we’ll have to top inquiries from other university students.

And that’s where you come in. Send me your questions today by noon, and I, along with the Editorial Board, will select the most three most trenchant, interesting questions.

Here’s mine.

In your mind, what is the underlying purpose of public schools in a democratic society? What does your reform agenda, both in K-12 schools and higher education, do to advance that core mission?

We’re undoubtedly at an important time in our nation’s education history. Tuition and fees have skyrocketed, and state support for higher education has plummeted. Federal Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college, account for less and less of tuition costs. While No Child Left Behind has failed to significantly raise student proficiency, it has narrowed curricula and advanced the dubious notion that test-based accountability helps education.

So what is the Obama education agenda?

Under Duncan, President Obama’s education team has been espousing strikingly different philosophical prescriptions for K-12 schools and universities.

Their K-12 agenda is right out of the “school reform” movement, which pushes charter schools, competition, and test-based accountability for teachers and students.

In contrast, Duncan and the Obama administration championed recently signed student legislation that will drastically limit the role of private lending institutions in the market. The billions saved — previously used for subsidies and default insurance — will be redirected into Pell Grants and students loans.

“There will be more resources available to [students],” Duncan told media outlets on Tuesday, including The Daily Iowan. “Some places, you can literally go to school for free.”

I’m sure inside-the-Beltway political pundits would characterize this seemingly schizophrenic ideology as a reflection of their “pragmatism.” (The Washington Post’s vacuous, politically amorphous columnist David Broder comes to mind.)

That’s not to say Obama’s K-12 agenda doesn’t have substantial support on both sides of the aisle. But it’s a very dangerous consensus. There’s nothing inherently beneficial policy-wise about bipartisanship. Congress authorized the Iraq war on a bipartisan vote, as well as the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind.

And because of the way mainstream journalists operate, bipartisanship is actually worse for democratic inquiry and discourse. As scholars such as Lance Bennett have outlined, journalists, in the name of objectivity, are typically content to structure their pieces in the standard, Democrat-versus-Republican, elite-driven story line. It’s a veneer that to most journalists — I’ve done it myself — is so ingrained, it seems innate.

But the ostensibly balanced story, in actuality, skirts the kind of multifaceted, nuanced discussion that is needed.

I, along, with the rest of the Editorial Board, supported the Obama-backed student loan legislation. Overshadowed by health-care reform, it’s unfortunate such an enormous policy change didn’t elicit more public discussion.

But Obama and Duncan’s remedy for K-12 schools is troubling. I’m concerned about its effect on public schools, which are so vital to our democracy. I’m wary of the pervasive anti-union sentiment among charter-school supporters and the “school reform” movement more generally.

And, perhaps most of all, I’m worried about a movement seemingly more concerned with constructing a new batch of students who can fill the corporate workforce, rather than educating the next generation of critically minded, engaged citizens.

Maybe I’m wrong. But I’d like to know.

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