Superintendent-in-chief?

Do you ever dream about what you'd do if you were Secretary of Education? If you're a teacher, no doubt you'd work to make federal policy more teacher-friendly. If you're a researcher, you'd strive to make it more evidence-based (and to increase the R & D budget). And if you're a big-city superintendent? Of course, you'd do exactly what Arne Duncan is doing: push for maximum flexibility at the district level while attacking federal and state policies that impede your reforms.

Consider the litany of superintendent-friendly policies that Duncan pursued last week, through his stimulus guidance, his intentions to adjust the Bush Administration's Title I regulations, and his comments to the press.

First, he'll now allow districts "in need of improvement" to offer "supplemental services" (free tutoring) directly, rather than outsourcing all of it to private providers. (His predecessor had already granted this permission to Chicago and a few other cities.) Second, he won't give districts a hard time if they can't provide timely notice to parents that their children are eligible to switch schools under No Child Left Behind, at least not if it's the states' fault (for not releasing timely test score data). Third, he called attention to a feature of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that will enable districts to spend the majority of their stimulus dollars almost any way they like, including school construction. And fourth, he talked up the benefits of Chicago-style mayoral control of big-city schools, as a strategy to consolidate power and authority in the hands of one district leader.

This all makes a certain amount of sense. Duncan was right when he told the Washington Post that "we need to have a tight, clear bar that we are all shooting for...but provide much more flexibility and the ability to innovate and be looser in how folks get there."

But what's perhaps most significant is the Superintendent-Secretary's approach to states. For decades, governors have been seen as major drivers of education reform. But now, rather than expecting states to lead, Duncan is asking them to get out of the way. This can be glimpsed in two important developments. First, the Secretary made it clear that states will have almost no discretion over the spending of stimulus dollars, which will go out via formula to the districts. And second, he put governors on notice that, if they want some of his $5 billion "race to the top" fund, they are going to have to strip barriers to local reform out of state law, such as charter school caps or rules disallowing districts from using student achievement data to inform decisions around teacher tenure.

Call it the Superintendents' Revenge. It must be satisfying to those at the helm of the country's school districts. And it sure makes sense if you're leading a system in Richard Daley's Chicago and Rod Blagojevich's Illinois. But whether it will work for the rest of the country, which isn't similarly blessed (or cursed), remains to be seen. Here's hoping for a dream come true.

More By Author