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Duncan Wins Praise at Confirmation Hearing

President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to lead the U.S. Department of Education pledged Tuesday to expand access to higher education and address “unacceptably high” dropout rates that prevent more youth from aspiring to college.

Arne Duncan, who has led the Chicago Public Schools since 2001, drew strong, bipartisan support at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. The committee could approve the nomination as early as this week.

While the secretary-designate focused mostly on K-12 issues, he cited postsecondary education as an increasing requirement for youth seeking high-wage jobs. “We need to expand access and affordability,” he told the panel. “We can do a lot better.”

Although Duncan offered few specifics, he did cite the complicated federal student aid system as one hindrance to access.

Even the application process is daunting. “You need a Ph.D. to figure it out,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “The form itself is a hindrance,” he added.

He also cited the importance of community colleges in retraining youth and adults for emerging careers in this challenging economy. These colleges “play a huge role in getting people back to work,” he said.

From K-12 to higher education, there is a continuing need for innovation and “to stop doing what doesn’t work,” Duncan told the panel. Echoing a pledge made by Obama, both the secretary-designate and several senators cited the need to eliminate unproductive programs and fund those proven successful.

Many senators also expressed concern for the higher education access issue. “We must ensure that no young person is denied access to college,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chaired the hearing in the absence of the panel’s chairman, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

To further buttress his pledge to access, Duncan cited his background in education and philanthropy prior to taking over Chicago schools. He talked of his work from 1992 to 1998 running an “I Have a Dream” program in Chicago. In these programs, a philanthropist pledges to pay for the future college tuition of 6th graders if they pledge to work hard and stay in school.

The “I Have a Dream” program became a model for the federal GEAR UP program, which provides support services to middle- and high-school youth with federal grants and loans providing the future capital to subsidize college tuition.

On K-12 education, Duncan voiced support for the No Child Left Behind Act, which is currently up for reauthorization in Congress. While some changes are necessary, the law’s goal of reaching all students — including those from different income and ethnic groups – is an important one, he said.

Asked about the law’s focus on specific subgroups within a school — such as Hispanics, low-income students or students with disabilities — Duncan said it is important to shine a light on the issues facing certain students. “We can’t hide behind the aggregate numbers,” he said.

Senate Republicans and Democrats both praised Duncan’s record during the hearing. While they don’t vote on his nomination, House leaders also endorsed his appointment. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., House education committee chairman, called Duncan “the right person, in the right position, at the right time.”

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