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How Daring Is Duncan?

Clay Risen pointed out this morning that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may have kick-started an early policy fight with his comments this week on D.C. school vouchers. Indeed, the education blogosphere has been buzzing with his support for allowing students who are already getting vouchers to stay in their private schools. "I don't think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they're happy and safe and satisfied and learning," he said. (Duncan indicated, however, that he doesn't support vouchers programs in the long run.)

Over at the Fordham Institute's blog Flypaper, Mike Petrilli points out that Duncan went on to say, "We need to be more ambitious. The goal shouldn't be to save a handful of children. The goal should be to dramatically change the opportunity structure for entire neighborhoods of kids." Petrilli aptly notes that this sounds a great deal like language used by Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone, a New York-based program designed to transform the lives of entire neighborhoods of children through schools, health clinics, and other local services. At its core, Harlem Children's Zone focuses on charter schools, which education reformers strongly support. (It's worth noting that while Obama has backed charter schools publicly, all funding for charters was shorn from the stimulus bill.)

It does appear that Harlem Children's Zone and similar pioneering programs are informing Duncan's approach to policy. For instance, in the most recent issue of Chicago magazine, the education secretary had this to say:

Q: Obviously you're familiar with what [Geoffrey Canada is] doing.

A: Yes. I'm going to create 20 Harlem Children's Zones around the country. I am.

Q: Really? Do you think you'll face opposition to the federal role expanding in that way?

A: I don't care. I'm going to fund it.

That's pretty bold (and encouraging!) talk, particularly in the face of congressional and union opposition to broadening reform efforts that have only been tested on a small scale--like the Harlem Children's Zone. But Duncan has been on a bold streak lately. The Washington Post reported today that the education secretary plans to use some of the stimulus money to "adopt on a grander scale ideas that are producing results on a trial basis in some locales." Duncan praised longer school days instituted by some charter schools, urged that clear standards for student achievement be created, and backed reformers' pet issue of merit pay. "We also have to make it easier to get rid of teachers when student achievement isn't happening," Duncan said.

Duncan's public campaign in favor of reform would make it seem that he's willing to buck (at least in part) the traditional Democratic establishment concerned with bolstering teachers unions, and to dismiss those Republicans concerned with keeping the federal government's education role in check. It's a heartening sign for reformers who are still nervous about where Obama will come down on education's most pressing issues. But, at this point, it's still just rhetoric. As stimulus and budget funds are doled out in the coming months and years, it will be interesting to see where dollars actually go, and whether Duncan is successful at matching his early, audacious words with innovative actions.

UPDATE: Check out this video of Obama praising the Harlem Children's Zone, and this list of skeptical questions from blogger and former Senate education staffer Alexander Russo regarding HCZ's value and the prospects of its expansion.   

--Seyward Darby