Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stressed the importance of transparency in education policy at the keynote for the McCourt School of Public Policy’s fourth annual Leadership, Evidence, Analysis and Debate conference in Fisher Colloquium on Monday.
This year’s LEAD conference focused primarily on education finance. Spending in education has seen significant changes since the Every Student Succeeds Act, which alters accountability for spending, was passed in December 2015.
According to McCourt School Dean Edward Montgomery, the theme of this year’s conference was inspired by the work of Director of the Edunomics Lab Dr. Marguerite Roza.
“The Edunomics Lab’s innovative research on education finance is changing policy at all levels,” Montgomery said. “When Marguerite and her team came to us with a host of ideas on how to build strong schools within the context of education finance, we jumped at the chance.”
Prior to his seven years as Secretary of Education from 2009 to 2016, Duncan served as the head of Chicago Public Schools for seven years.
Since leaving the Obama Administration, Duncan has worked at Laurene Powell Jobs’ education group, Emerson Collective, as a managing partner.
Duncan said an effective budget is one of the main pillars of strong schools.
“Every school has 50 different issues. You can’t work on all 50, so what are the few for this budget year that you are going to focus on?” Duncan said. “Budget is important, but it’s one step out of this process. If we start with budget and don’t think about facts, don’t think about strategy, we’re not going to get to where we need to go.”
According to Duncan, finance has become a critical issue given what she called a lack of transparency around spending in education.
“You should have absolute transparency. There’s so much opaqueness in school finance. Forget the public, if you ask teachers in their own school, ‘how is your budget spent?’ They can’t tell you,” Duncan said. “The lack of transparency is part of why I think we aren’t getting better as fast as we should.”
Duncan said increasing transparency is one of the first steps toward improving the education system.
“You can’t get to thinking about how to allocate not just dollars but human talent and technology if you don’t have transparency. The fact that not one school district does it, you should be ashamed and uncomfortable of where we are,” Duncan said. “Transparency is a gateway, not the end.”
Duncan said while the government is gradually making efforts to address these systemic issues within the education system, there needs to be more research and more data, and parents and community groups must be empowered to spur change.
According to Duncan, one of the biggest hurdles in education policy is the general lack of awareness and accountability.
“People don’t vote on education. The biggest thing we could do to change the nation is if every citizen voted around early childhood or K-12 policy,” Duncan said. “If education was one of our top three issues, our country would change overnight; it wouldn’t matter who was in office.”
Duncan said that while he doesn’t miss the internal politics of Washington, D.C., politicians should take more steps to address education.
“Every politician gets a pass. They all visit schools, they all get a photo op, but almost none of them walk the walk,” Duncan said. “For any of the lead candidates: what’s their college completion goal? What’s their strategy to get there? Nobody knows. We haven’t asked and that’s on us.”
Duncan said communities need to build movements to put pressure on the government to act.
“I wish parents were banging down our doors demanding more. Until then we will continue to putter along,” Duncan said. “I think we are moving way too slow. Without the political will, without the demand, without the push on both sides, I think we will continue to get better at a rate that is insufficient.”
Duncan said a grassroots effort to make education more affordable is especially important in the current economic climate, where higher education is becoming more critical for success.
“The economy has changed. The cost of a lack of education, socially, economically, is massive,” Duncan said. “When I was growing up in Chicago, my friends could drop out of high school and still have a pretty good life, support their family. In our society, if you don’t have at least a high school diploma and some form of training, you don’t have a chance.”
Anastasia Sendoun (COL ’18), who attended the event, said she felt Duncan was surprisingly aware of the struggles facing minority students.
“What I really liked was his general attitude toward education and how much he talks about low-income communities and groups of students that have for a really long time been marginalized in terms of the rhetoric that people use to talk about education,” Sendoun said.
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