THE BLOG
02/11/2014 01:49 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2014

Duncan Says 'Preschool Education Is Ultimate Bipartisan Issue'

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined Bloomberg Radio's Jane Williams last week to talk about the state of education in this country. "Early childhood education has become the ultimate bipartisan issue," said Duncan. "We actually have more Republican governors than Democratic governors investing."

In addition, Duncan discussed parent-teacher and community partnerships, Common Core State Standards and high-speed Internet access for students.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced plans to revamp the e-rate program which provides discounts of up to 90 percent to help eligible schools and libraries in the United States obtain affordable telecommunications and internet access. President Barack Obama announced the initiative during his State of the Union address last month.

"Why so important," Jane asked Secretary Duncan. "And what about [internet access in] the homes of low-income children, as well as the schools?"

Citing the opportunity gap, the distribution (or lack) of resources among children and often tied to socioeconomic status, race and other factors, "all we're trying to do is sort of level the playing field for our children, again compared to our international counterparts," said Duncan. In South Korea, according to Duncan, high speed internet is available in every classroom. In the U.S.. however, says Duncan, only 20 percent of the classrooms have similar capabilities.

"...Technology I think, can be this great equalizer in driving a very important equity agenda. We're working with schools and libraries, and community centers. Your question about access at home is a very important one," Duncan said. "But we want to do everything we can to make sure our children have every opportunity to learn, just as children in South Korea do."

And we're back to opportunity, access and equity. Access in school networks, high-speed or otherwise, is limited. What percent of homes in the U.S., let's say compared to South Korea, are wired with high-speed digital networks? We think it's an important question and likely an issue that needs to be addressed, sooner rather than later.

Audio and transcript follow.

Transcript

(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)

JANE WILLIAMS:
I'm so glad you're with us for Bloomberg EDU today. I'm Jane Williams, and my guest is Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. He's just beginning his sixth year in that post. Welcome back, Mr. Secretary.

ARNE DUNCAN:
Thanks for the opportunity.

JANE WILLIAMS:
So, let's talk about education and the State of the Union. Mostly, the president was urging support for proposals he's made in the past. But let's focus on a few new ideas you and he are proposing. On early childhood education, he mentioned a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists. Tell us about that.

ARNE DUNCAN:
Well first, let me say, I was thrilled at the first sentence of the State of the Union was about high school graduation rates reaching all time highs, and the president thanking teachers for working so hard. So, can't have a better way to start the State of the Union, at least from our perspective.

JANE WILLIAMS:
That's true.

ARNE DUNCAN:
But on the early childhood side, it's really, really encouraging. Obviously, we have a long way to go to get Congress to work together in a more functional way. But in the real world across the country, you have many, many governors investing in tough economic times to expand access.

And in fact, we actually have more Republican governors than Democratic governors investing. So, this has become the ultimate bipartisan issue. And what we want to do is partner, whether it's with governors, whether it's with mayors to go where people are working hard, where they see the value, and try and make sure we're reaching the children who need the most help.

And there has been some recent data coming out, stuff we sort of know, you know, just you know by following the trajectory of these things. But just last week, and for example, in Kentucky a study came out saying that 51%, so the majority of children in Kentucky who are starting kindergarten are already behind, they're not ready. And when you sort of think about what that means, not just for the State of Kentucky, but across the country, we have to work together to get our babies off to a better start.

JANE WILLIAMS:
So, what will be the goal of the coalition?

ARNE DUNCAN:
Well, our goal is simple. We want to take to scale what is working. And again, to work in communities, to work in cities, to work in states that think of this not as an expense, but as an investment, and the best investment we can make.

And I would like to find places that want to dramatically expand access, and do everything we can to partner with them to make sure that our children who need the most help get it. Again, when we sort of step back and think about, you know, waiting lists in many states of 6,000, 8,000, 10,000, 12,000 three and four year olds. These are families, these are parents trying to do the right thing for their children, and simply not having enough seats. And as I said earlier, states are investing, communities are investing, but far too often the demand for high quality early learning far outstrips the supply, the availability of seats for our babies.

JANE WILLIAMS:
So, in a way it's a chance to get this work done without having to have Congress fund. Do you have any hope of Congress funding early education for all four year olds, as you'd asked a year ago?

ARNE DUNCAN:
You know, getting Congress to do anything together is clearly difficult. But I keep saying, if Congress wants to become less dysfunctional and more functional, there's no better place than around education. And it's really interesting, Jane, is we've traveled the country working on this early childhood issue.

We built this very, very interesting and unusual coalition. We have literally hundreds and hundreds of CEOs who are on board, because they understand the return on investment. We have law enforcement, states attorneys, people saying, "We're tired of locking people up at the back end. We rather educate them at the front end." You have faith based community members, you know, stepping up and saying, "This is the right thing." You have obviously, parents, so this is very, very, very interesting group. Military leaders saying, "We need more young people prepared." So again, in the real world, lots of people working together. We just hope Congress, you know, gets its head out of the sand and pays a little bit more attention to what's going on back home.

JANE WILLIAMS:
Switching topics to parents. President Obama said, we need quote, "More demanding parents," end quote. And you've talked about this recently too. Are you talking about parents across the socio-economic spectrum, Mr. Secretary? Or, low- income parents in particular?

ARNE DUNCAN:
No, no, no, I that it's very important that, you know, all of us as parents, and obviously, we want to look in the mirror first. And my wife and I have a daughter in sixth grade and a son in fourth grade in public schools here. And we need to be partnering with our children's teachers, we need to be working with them, not just around parent/teacher conferences but on a daily basis. And if we're not doing that, we're part of the problem. And we would like to see parents, to your point, across the socio-economic spectrum, you know, inner-city urban, suburban, rural, remote, whatever it might be, parents demanding more of their schools, and being better partners with their children's teachers.

And our teachers are working very, very hard across the country, but they can't do it by themselves. And parents need to be full and equal partners. So, we've sort of contrasted what's going on in the United States and what's going on in other countries that are higher performing than us educationally, and in some of those countries you have parents demanding a world-class education for their children. And I wish frankly, a lot more of us had that kind of pressure on us.

JANE WILLIAMS:
Those parents demanding more of their schools. But also more of their kids. You mentioned South Korea. Do parents in this country need to demand more of their kids as well?

ARNE DUNCAN:
Well again, these are broad, broad statements, and there's a huge, you know, variation across you know, families or whatever. But I will say, what was very, very interesting is Amanda Ripley, as you know wrote that fantastic book, The Smartest Kids in the World, and compared children who were born in the United States, who went to school in other countries.

She and I co-moderated a panel here with just the opposite; with children who were born in other countries, but are going to high school here, and actually going to some very, very good high schools here. One teenager was from South Korea, one was from Brazil, one was from Germany, and one was from Australia. And what was absolutely devastating, Jane, is every single one, every single one of those young people said that they were more challenged in their schools back home in their native countries, rather than here.

And so, I think the larger point is, we need to be asking more of everyone. We need to be challenging our students more, and we need to make sure our children are getting the world class education they need and deserve to compete in a globally competitive economy.

JANE WILLIAMS:
We're talking with Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. Up next, we'll talk Common Core and the Internet. I'm Jane Williams, and this is Bloomberg EDU.

JANE WILLIAMS:
This is Bloomberg EDU. I'm Jane Williams, and my guest today is the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. We're talking about some of the issues that came up in the State of the Union address. One thing the president did not mention, Mr. Secretary, at least not by name is Common Core. He did talk about standards. It's become such a political hot button issue.

Almost all the states, as you well know, signed on for the new standards. Now, some are walking back, parents are fighting it, teachers are fighting it, Conservatives are fighting it. There's a movie coming out, apparently, calling the whole thing a conspiracy. Will Common Core survive this?

ARNE DUNCAN:
Well again, I think every parent wants for their children what I want for my children, and that's higher standards. And in fact, the vast majority of teachers as you know, 75% of teachers absolutely support this. States, as you know, choose to adopt standards. And I think one of the most insidious things that happened under No Child Left Behind, is there are about 19 or 20 states that actually dummied down their standards, and were actually lying to children and parents, telling them they were prepared when they were not.

And why did that happen? It happened to make politicians look good. And for me, that was just absolutely devastating for kids, and for families in our country, and ultimately for our country's economy. And so, we should have a high bar, and states I think are working very, very hard, not just to raise standards, but to implement them, to support teachers, and doing this hard work, and to articulate what this means for students and for parents.

And so, you know, obviously any change is hard, and there are you know, pros and cons, and you know, whatever the issues might be. But at the end of the day anyone who thinks we should be reducing standards, dumbing them down, I think is not doing anything of benefit for our children and for our country.

One quick story is one of the states that actually had the lowest standards was Tennessee. And my numbers won't be exact, but Tennessee was saying that 90% to 91% of their children in fourth grade math were at grade level, were doing well. And in fact, when they raised standards, it went from about 90%, down to like you know, 29%, or something like that. It was a huge, huge drop.

But guess what? For the first time, they were telling the truth. They were being very, very honest, and they stopped lying to children's families. And subsequently, Tennessee has become the fastest improving state in the country. And there are lots of things they're doing right. There's never one simple answer here. But I would argue, part of what they're doing right is they're being very, very honest, very transparent with the public. They're working hard to implement these higher standards, working hard with teachers, and the benefits for children have been fantastic.

But to lie to children's families and say, you know, you're on track for being successful, you are not even close? For me, that is absolutely devastating, and I hope states won't choose to go back in that direction. And we should hold any political leader who wants to do that absolutely accountable. When we talk about, you know, being more demanding, and having parents, you know, challenge. For me, this would be right up there at the top of that list.

JANE WILLIAMS:
Courage seems to be in short supply when you look at a number of the political leaders, business leaders who really were advocates for Common Core. There's a lot less loud advocacy for it. People seem to be retreating a bit. Is that because we're in election year? What's happening?

ARNE DUNCAN:
Well again, I don't quite know if I agree with that interpretation, and I look across the country, and you've seen you know, 45, 46 states adopt higher standards. Actually, frankly, not one state has walked away from that yet. And obviously, it may well happen. States have the right to do so. And you might see a state here or there, you know, choose to reduce standards.

But the fact of the matter is to date, not one has. And in fact, the vast majority of states are just working really, really hard at implementing this. And obviously, where there's noise and drama, that's where the media and the press goes. But there are many, many states across the country, I'd put Kentucky right at the top of that list, and there's a survey of teachers, survey of the public, and the implementation of Common Core's going fantastic there. No one covers it. Why? Because no one's yelling and screaming at each other. So, it's not a sexy story, which to me is a bit of a travesty. Because that is where the real story is.

So, people are doing very, very hard work. This is going to be rocky, it's going to be bumpy, and absolutely there'll be pushback. And then, let me be clear, the goal here is to have high standards. And if folks want to raise the bar even higher, that would be a very interesting conversation to have.

JANE WILLIAMS:
Switching to the Internet. The president reiterated your goal of having 99% of students in classrooms connected with high speed Internet. He's out talking about that this week. You and the FCC have, I think, 4 1/2 years left to meet your own goal. Why so important, and what about the homes of low-income children, as well as the schools?

ARNE DUNCAN:
Yes, well again, and all we're trying to do is sort of level the playing field for our children, again compared to our international counterparts. And another stark example of what I call the opportunity gap in our country, in South Korea, 100%, basically all of their schools have access to high speed broadband, and in our country it's 20%. You know, 20% versus 100%.

And you wonder why their children are out competing ours? They're doing better than ours. And so, this is a really, really important body of work that will not happen overnight. But whether it's inner-city urban, whether it's rural, or remote, or Native American reservations, technology I think, can be this great equalizer in driving a very important equity agenda.

But also in raising the bar, creating more excellence for everyone. And so, the FCC has been, you know, doing tremendous work here, it's providing real, real leadership. And if we can give children and communities, and families who have been desperately underserved in this area these kinds of learning opportunities, I think the difference it's going to make for children is fantastic.

And so, we're working with schools and libraries, and community centers. Your question about access at home is a very important one. But we want to do everything we can to make sure our children have every opportunity to learn, just as children in South Korea do. And I just keep asking a simple question, do our children deserve less than children in South Korea, or they deserve the same or more? And if we agree that they do not deserve less, we have some hard work to do together ahead of us.

JANE WILLIAMS:
You're devoting some time this week talking about promise zones. We're going to be talking with Geoff Canada later on, on this program. We're starting our fourth year on the program, and it feels in a way as if we've come full circle on poverty in that conversation, once again saying, it's got to be more than K-12, it's really got to be birth through 20s, a whole community effort. You agree?

ARNE DUNCAN:
I absolutely agree, and this is obviously at the heart of my work, and where my passion comes from, and growing up it's a part of my mother's program in the inner city on the Southside of Chicago, living this every day. It has to be the whole community coming together. And Geoff Canada has been just an amazing visionary and leader, and his hard work, and the results, the dividends for children that he's demonstrated there in Harlem has had a profound impact on both the president and I.

And what we're basically trying to do in many ways is take to scale what he's demonstrating there in New York. That you must have high performing schools, you must have great schools, we must be the hearts, the centers of the community. But great schools, particularly in very disadvantaged communities, can't do it by themselves.

And we have to rally, and to your point, we have to start with our babies, and it's got to be cradle through to career. And so, we're working very, very hard across the administration with Sean Donovan at HUD, and Anthony Fox in Transportation, and Tom Vilsack, and Tom Perez in Labor. We're all working together to try and see, can we get some very significant proof points around the nation, where the tremendous work that Geoffrey's done there in New York, and start to go to scale in other communities.

JANE WILLIAMS:
Well, Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, thanks very much for being with us, and here's to a great year for our kids.

ARNE DUNCAN:
Thank you so much, and thanks for keeping the focus on education. I really, really appreciate it.

JANE WILLIAMS:
Well, thanks Mr. Secretary, and up next, we'll talk with Geoffrey Canada. I'm Jane Williams, and this is Bloomberg EDU.

* *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *

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