Education Secretary Arne Duncan is sitting on $4.35 billion. Can he deliver for children?

Jon Ward Contributor
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Read The Daily Caller’s interview with Arne Duncan here.

Arne Duncan is sitting on a very large pot of money – $4.35 billion to be exact – that is looking more attractive by the day to states who continue to get hit hard by economic recession and see still leaner times ahead.

The problem is that Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, has vowed to give the money only to state school systems that make meaningful reforms to create greater accountability for teacher performance and student results.

Duncan’s resolve is going to be tested in the next few months, leading up to the first round of awards in late April or early May.

The former college basketball player and good friend of President Obama’s who was profiled by the New Yorker this week, talked a tough game during an interview Tuesday with The Daily Caller (full transcript here) that touched on the Race to the Top program and other subjects.

“If anybody is holding back reform then we simply won’t fund those states,” Duncan said. “There’s still some expectation that we’re just going to fund every application that comes in, and I can absolutely assure you there are going to be many more losers than winners.”

But the bleak economic conditions in many states, combined with built in bureaucratic institutional and union interests in most systems, mean that Duncan will be under “enormous pressure on him to give this money out politically rather than based on good policy,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs at The Education Trust.

“A lot of these states are pretty broke. So people will be scrambling for money. Members of Congress will be calling him. Governors will be calling him, saying, ‘Can’t you find a way to help me out?’” Wilkins said.

Asked whether teacher unions will try to in some cases hold school systems back from the toughest accountability measures for teachers, Duncan said there has been “tremendous support” for RTT. He said over 600 local union leaders had signed RTT applications.

But, said Andrew Smarick, of the Fordham Institute, “he didn’t mention all of the local unions that didn’t sign on. That number far eclipses those that did.”

“Also, many of those that agreed to cooperate were in states that put together weaker proposals,” Smarick said.

Duncan vowed he will be “very tough-minded about this and so where folks are playing games and trying to perpetuate the status quo or resistance to change, we’re simply not going to fund them and it’s going to cost their states hundreds of millions of dollars, literally.”

He added that a second round of awards will give those who miss out on the first round a chance to mend their ways.

If he can successfully bear up under the pressure, Duncan will likely craft what looks to be one of the few bright story lines for the Obama administration in a year that has started out very badly and has the potential to get much worse.

Duncan also addressed one of the toughest criticisms he and Obama have received from a diverse cross section of education advocates, that the executive branch should have done more to prevent the D.C. public schools voucher system from being closed down.

Duncan said he does not believe vouchers are the best solution for children stuck in failing schools.

“What we want to do is make sure that every child has the chance to go to a great school, not just peel off 1 or 2 percent from a school and leave the rest to drown,” Duncan said.

“The goal of turnaround is not to save one or two children,” he said. “The turnaround work is to transform the opportunities for every child, 100 percent of children in those low performing schools. And we want to work with DC and other school districts, urban and rural, who have the courage and commitment to fundamentally change what’s not working and to do it at scale.”

Duncan has been criticized by African-American clergy and community leaders, as well as public figures such as Juan Williams, for not challenging Congress on this issues. Congress is allowing the program – which provided scholarships of up to $7,500 to 1,700 children in D.C.’s low-performing public schools – to expire at the end of 2010.

Daniel Lips, a senior education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, called Duncan’s comments on the voucher system “indefensible.”

“There is no reason that this program couldn’t be expanded to help many more children in the District,” Lips said.

“He talks about needing to reform broken schools over the process of five or six years. What good is that going to be for a child today who is stuck in a bad school?” Lips said. “We know we can help them today by giving them scholarships to attend better schools.”

Allie McCubrey contributed to this article.