In Denver, Duncan promotes preschool expansion and K-12 tax measure

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Friday asked Colorado voters to support President Barack Obama’s attempt to expand access to early-childhood education and endorsed efforts here to pass a $950 million tax increase to overhaul the state’s school financing system.

“I desperately hope it moves forward,” Duncan said of the proposed tax increase, which voters will accept or reject in November.

The education secretary described the choice facing Colorado voters as reflective of a “fundamental tension” underlying much of the debate over education spending nationally. “Do we believe in education as an investment, or as an expense?” he said.

Some critics of the education tax measure worry that pouring more money into the education system does little to ensure that it will improve. But Duncan characterized the changes in funding structure that would accompany the tax increase as a smart investment.

“I will never support simply investing in the status quo,” Duncan said. Rather, he described the changes prescribed in the state’s accompanying school finance reform bill, such as increasing funding to districts that serve greater concentrations of students in poverty or learning English, as potentially transformative to the state’s educational system.

“The implications [of the funding overhaul] are truly national,” he said.

Duncan’s stop in Denver was part of his effort to sell the Obama administration’s pre-school expansion plan and also to spotlight state and national attempts to expand college access and affordability. His first stop of the day was at Clayton Early Learning, where he toured early childhood facilities and, along with Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and others, held a town hall meeting on the president’s plan. Duncan then visited Escuela Tlatelolco, where he was joined by Garcia as well as U. S. Senator Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper for a second town hall meeting on college access and affordability, especially for Hispanic students.

Precise details of the administration’s preschool plan aren’t yet known, but Duncan emphasized that the federal Department of Education would be partnering with state and local governments to scale up programs that have been shown to succeed.

“For me, the key to all of this is really just partnership,” he said.

Duncan compared the proposal to the administration’s Race to the Top program, though he noted that there are no plans for states to compete for funding. The proposal does include plans to incentivize states to adopt full-day kindergarten policies. The Obama administration’s education policies and strategy of spurring states to adopt them through incentives have been hailed in some quarters for driving much-needed action and decried in others as unwarranted federal intrusion on local decision-making.

Early estimates of Colorado’s share of the president’s budget request, should the proposal move forward and the state choose to participate, say that Colorado would receive nearly $42 million in the program’s first year, which, combined with a smaller state match, would provide more than 5,000 low- and middle-income children with preschool services. Similarly, the administration’s proposal would send Colorado more than $7 million to expand home visits from nurses, social workers, and other education professionals to low-income families to promote healthy child development and early learning.

And while Duncan spoke to the Denver audiences, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a Republican-written re-write of the No Child Left Behind law that hands much school oversight currently held by the federal government to states and significantly cuts federal education funding. Obama has threatened to veto the House version if it moves forward and, speaking to reporters after the town halls, Duncan characterized the bill as “not a real thing.”

Bennet said that he anticipated the Senate would put forth a much different version of the federal education bill rewrite and also characterized the House version as political grandstanding.

“It was a political exercise as much as anything else,” Bennet said.