Secretary Duncan recently held a video conference with ED staff in the eleven Regional Offices across the country to thank them for their good work and discuss current priorities. He explained that we are close to releasing the Request for Proposal for the Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge that will improve access to quality education for young children in disadvantaged communities. He also said that he has been working with the House and Senate on bipartisan legislation that would replace the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but in these tough economic times, the Congress has not been able to focus on education. In the meantime, he said he wants to support innovative states through regulatory flexibility from restrictions under the current law.
He thanked those who work in the Office for Civil Rights for their “technical assistance and thoughtful judgment” regarding resolution of civil rights complaints. He acknowledged the Office of Management for its help with security, continuity of operations, and success in quickly hiring new staff as part of succession planning. And, he thanked the Office of Communications and Outreach for carefully listening to parents, teachers, and community members across the country and providing feedback from the field on important issues.
He asked how he can further support the work in the Regions. In response to specific questions, he outlined the following:
- To support rural school districts, we have maintained REAP formula funding, provided flexibility for funding under that program and have established priorities specific to rural communities for competitive grants.
- Our challenge with Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods grants has been that the demand for support is far greater than the supply of funds.
- He hopes that we have more and more grant competitions. We are not looking for fancy proposals, but want proposals that are creative and challenge the status quo.
- The Office for Civil Rights has moved beyond enforcement to providing guidance and technical assistance. The civil rights data that were recently collected and released have driven a new national conversation on education opportunity for students in disadvantaged communities. The report from the Commission on Equity and Excellence will be significant when it is published, and the role of the Office for Civil Rights will grow. In addition, the strategic compliance reviews have changed conversations, and this process is a tool for us to keep on using.
- The Department has realized the need to work closely with other cabinet agencies for efficient use of resources. This has taken time and requires compromise, but it has paid off in partnerships with the Department of Justice on civil rights issues; with Health and Human Services on the Early Learning Challenge grant program and the establishment of Health Centers in schools; with Housing and Urban Development to link the Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods programs; and with Agriculture on school lunches and nutrition. The Secretary emphasized, “This is the right way to do business.”
- When asked what he thinks the most pressing issue in education is, he said that he is concerned that “students of color don’t have access to the very best education possible in order to close the achievement gap and offer the opportunity to participate competitively in a strong economy. “
Office of Communications and Outreach