By ANGELA CHARLTON, The Associated Press | http://yhoo.it/d8EHoZ
November 5, 2010 – Paris (AP) -President Barack Obama's education secretary is hopeful that this week's Republican election victories won't derail his ambitious school reforms, which he argues are crucial to keeping up in an ever-smarter global economy.
"We used to be at the top of the world" in education rankings, Arne Duncan told The Associated Press in Paris on Thursday. "People think we're still there, but we're not."
In an interview, he said the "absolutely unacceptable" U.S. high school dropout rate—a quarter of students drop out or don't finish on time—"produces the effect of a permanent recession" because of lost productivity.
Duncan says he's relieved the elections are over and is "very hopeful" that the new Congress will approve the funding he wants to turn around poor schools and encourage better teacher performance. "I have a good relationship with (incoming House Speaker) John Boehner. I've known Boehner for years, I look forward to continuing to work with him."
Duncan has been working with Democratic and Republican legislators for months on getting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorized, and said the bipartisan discussions have been a model of civility. "We're looking forward to reauthorizing and hopefully moving pretty quickly," he said, though gave no time frame.
He was similarly upbeat though vague about the future of Race to the Top, a program of federal education grants for states. The White House has asked for $1.35 billion to give to states that the Education Department wasn't able to fund in two earlier rounds. But Republicans have campaigned against it.
Republicans in Congress are eager to hack away at the Obama administration's spending, and Duncan conceded, "There's no guarantee that our agenda will continue to move."
The White House had a major ally in George Miller, the outgoing chairman of the House education and labor committee—a job now expected to go to John Kline of Minnesota, who wants to scale back the role of the federal government in education.
Duncan used market-based arguments to push his case for reforms, calling education "an investment, not an expense."
Duncan spoke Thursday at UNESCO, the U.N.'s education body, and at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The OECD, a watchdog for leading economies, is coming out with a new study next month comparing how well kids perform academically in the United States and other rich countries. While the U.S. government spends more per head on education than any OECD country but Luxembourg, U.S. schoolchildren have for years ranked lower than many foreign counterparts in math and science.
"We've flatlined," Duncan said. "We rested on our laurels, taken our eye off the ball."