U.S. education secretary visits Kansas

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday the nation must work to close what he calls an “opportunity gap” among students if children are going to reach their potential, adding that states have to see education as an investment, not just a line on a budget sheet.

“Our children are as smart, as creative, as entrepreneurial as children anywhere in the world. We just have to level the playing field,” the secretary said during a brief visit to Topeka. “A strong economy and a great education, those two things are inextricably linked. We have to educate our way to a better economy.”

Duncan spoke on the steps of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka as part of his 10-day, nationwide bus tour that ends Friday in Washington. He told the crowd of about 100, including a middle school youth choir, that the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in that landmark case outlawing school segregation moved the nation toward education equality.

“We all know we have so far to go,” Duncan said. “We as a nation are still far from truly achieving equal educational opportunity.”

The former head of the Chicago school system said more is needed to have equity among students, regardless of race, gender or where they live.

He said data indicates that more black and Hispanic students are attending schools that have predominantly minority enrollments. He said those schools often don’t have the resources to provide students with advanced placement or other opportunities found in schools with more white students.

“What sense does that make? How does that close the achievement gap?” Duncan said. “The American dream was never about guaranteeing the equality of results. But it was always about assuring equality of opportunity.”

He touted efforts by President Obama to increase federal funding for Pell grants for college students and $5 billion in school improvement programs aimed at raising achievement at the lowest performing schools.

However, he said the nation was failing to live up to its core ideals and criticized efforts to cut state spending on education, such as early childhood and after-school programs.

“America’s story is not the story of triumph of the status quo. It cannot be the story of the preservation of privilege. When it comes to closing the opportunity gap, there can be no us and them,” Duncan said.

Kansas lawmakers increased education spending by about $40 million in the budget that took effect July 1. The Legislature increased base state aid per student by $58 to $3,838, reversing a string of reductions brought about by the state’s financial struggles during the recession.

Duncan also touched on the school-choice debate. He said he was committed to accountability for schools and that it’s right to demand results for the investment. But he said most American students will attend public schools and that he didn’t support moving money outside the system through vouchers or private charter schools.

“I’m an advocate of public school choice,” he said.

Duncan was heading later Tuesday to Emporia for a town hall meeting on educational issues at Emporia State University, then to Kansas City, Mo., for a discussion on education for Hispanic students.