Blog: The Educated Reporter

Secretary Duncan’s Bus Tour: Preschool, Higher Ed. Top List

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan poses with a fan in Birmingham, Alabama during the 2014 back-to-school bus tour. This year's tour runs this week. (Flickr/U.S. Department of Education)

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launches his sixth annual back-to-school bus tour this week, and the chosen locations offer some insights into the department’s priorities in the waning days of the Obama administration. 

The first stop today is Woodland Early Learning Center, in Kansas City, Missouri. The White House has been pushing for more than two years for a federal-state partnership to significantly expand preschool opportunities for children from low-income families. (Congress has been less enthusiastic.) As Lyndsey Layton reported last week in The Washington Post, some states — like New York – are forging ahead on their own: 

The pre-kindergarten rolls, larger than the entire K-12 public school enrollment of Boston or Seattle, makes good on a campaign promise by Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) to offer full-day preschool to every 4-year-old in the city.

“This should be the model going forward all over this country,” said de Blasio, who spent part of the Labor Day weekend visiting barbershops and beauty salons in Brooklyn, talking to parents about enrolling their children in preschool. “If we can do this for 65,000 kids, with all the challenges that New York City has with our rich demographic mix, English-language learners and kids with special needs, I believe you can do it anywhere.”

The long-term dividends to students, families, and communities of investing in early childhood education was discussed at EWA’s 68th National Seminar, held in Chicago in April. We also looked at some innovative public-private partnerships being used to provide more expansive preschool opportunities for families. 

Some questions for local education reporters to consider:

  • What’s the status of preschool in your districts?
  • Are there any new public-private partnerships this year?
  • Is there a waiting list for publicly subsidized classroom seats?
  • What are the private options available to families with the means to pay for early childhood education?
  • What can local teachers tell you about the differences they see in kindergarten and first graders who have — and have not – had previous structured experience in a classroom?

As for the education secretary’s bus tour, the theme this year is “Ready for Success,” and the higher ed site visits are a logical bookend to the early childhood center, which serves as the starting point. But there’s less of an emphasis on the K-12 sector compared with prior tours — only one middle school and no elementary schools. 

President Obama is scheduled to join Secretary Duncan today for a town hall meeting on college affordability at North High School in Des Moines. (If you’re headed there, stop at Bauder Pharmacy for a milkshake.) Duncan will later visit five higher ed institutions – a mix of public and private universities in Kentucky, Illinois and Pennsylvania, as well as a community college in Ohio.

There’s certainly been plenty of higher education policy pushes to justify that emphasis, and many of the Obama administration’s biggest K-12 initiatives (such as Race to the Top) are wrapping up, rather than kicking off. My EWA colleague Mikhail Zinshteyn wrote recently about the growing popularity of a new program aimed at forgiving more student loan debt. The White House backed awayfrom its plans to rate colleges and universities to help families and students be smarter shoppers. (You can hear more about that decision in a recent EWA Radio episode with Paul Fain of Inside Higher Ed.) But it did, however, recently expand the information that its college scorecards offer on each institution, enabling families to see how much graduates from each university earn — and owe.

For more on Duncan’s agenda for the remainder of his time in office, you can read highlights from his Q&A with the New York Times’ Motoko Rich at EWA’s 2015 National Seminar.