MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
Coming up, gay rights activists have scored some major political victories in recent years and polls show more people than ever are accepting of same sex relationships. So, why are as many as half of LGBT white collar employees still in the closet at work? We'll talk about a new study that revealed that finding in a few minutes.
But first, we want to talk about another major concern of Americans, education. Even as the nations political leaders work to resolve their differences over the nations budget deficit and debt, education is still very much on the minds of many if not most Americans.
At President Obama's Twitter Town Hall meeting yesterday, for example, moderator and twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey estimated that 10 percent of the questions touched on the needs of America's schools and how they're coping with strained budgets. This is just part of the president's response. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOWN HALL MEETING)
President BARACK OBAMA: We do have to pay for good teachers. Young talented people aren't going to go into teaching if they're getting paid a poverty wage. We do have to make sure that buildings aren't crumbling. It's pretty hard for kids to concentrate if there are leaks and it's cold and there are rats running around in their schools. And that's true in a lot of schools around the country.
MARTIN: The man tasked with helping to keep American schools on the right track is Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He has presided over the Obama administration's signature education program Race to the Top and he's sought to address complaints about the Bush administration's key education law, No Child Left Behind.
Secretary Duncan has spent nearly 20 years working on education reform, and he's on the line now from his office in Washington, D.C. Welcome back, thanks for joining us once again.
Secretary ARNE DUNCAN: Thanks for having me, Michel. Thanks for the opportunity.
MARTIN: I'd like to ask you about one of those questions that the president was addressing at the town hall meeting on Twitter yesterday, which is what about the fact that the country is in tough economic times and many state and local budgets are squeezed and the schools are taking a hit. We find that, you know, summer schools being curtailed. In many places, we find that teachers are being laid off in some places. How are your strategies for education reform being affected or are they being affected by these budget realities?
DUNCAN: Yeah. Well, there's no upside to when state and local governments are cutting back and these are tough economic times, as you know, Michel, at every level state and local and federal. And what the president is trying to do is lead by example and walk the walk. And in these very tough economic times, when he basically flat-lined the rest of domestic spending, he asked for a $4 billion increase in our budget, in education's budget.
What he fundamentally sees is that education is an investment not an expense. And that where folks cut back, that's penny-wise and pound-foolish. This is the best investment we can make. So, I've challenged all 50 governors. I've challenged local political leaders that, you know, when you cut back in early childhood education and when you go from five-day weeks to four-day weeks, when you eliminate extra curriculars and art and P.E. and music, you absolutely hurt your children and ultimately you hurt your state.
And so, budget, Michel, reflect our priorities. They reflect our values. And we either care about children and we're going to continue to invest in them or we're not.
MARTIN: I wanted to talk about an education story that's making headlines now. A Georgia state investigation revealed on Tuesday that 178 teachers and principals in the Atlanta public school system cheated on standardized tests. And they're saying that part of it is that there's just too much writing on test scores now and it creates an environment where people are desperate, and desperate people cheat. Well, what do you make of that?
DUNCAN: Yeah. Well, you always want a balance. But the other day, Michel, was so disturbing. There - this was clearly part of the culture. This is endemic. And I think approximately 80 percent of schools had cheating in it. So, this isn't - wasn't an isolated incident.
Ultimately, Michel, it's just real simple. When adults do these kinds of things, they just hurt children. They cheat to children. There are children here who didn't get the help they needed, didn't get the support they needed because they were lied to.
MARTIN: But why do you think this happened, though? I mean, are you saying that - why did this culture exists? Do you think these are just bad people or they're lacking in morality or...
DUNCAN: I don't think - no, I have no idea on the details there. But at the end of the day, what I care about is, you know, are we helping children fulfill their tremendous academic and social potential? Are they getting the support they need? And clearly, there was a culture here that at some levels was rotten.
MARTIN: And obviously there's a lot of debate about the role that the No Child Left Behind standards play in that environment. There are people clearly on both sides of that conversation. But you testified before Congress in March that the vast majority of public schools would not meet some No Child Left Behind standards by 2014. And you called on Congress to reform the policy. What's the status of that?
DUNCAN: Yeah. Well, the law is fundamentally broken. And the law is far too punitive, far to prescriptive, it's led to a dumbing down of standards. It's led to a narrowing of the curriculum. And what I'm so angry about, Michel, is if whatever the number, 75, 80 percent of schools are labeled as failures with the current law, that's dishonest. It's not true.
We absolutely have schools that are struggling. We absolutely have schools that we don't challenge the status quo, but many, many schools are doing an amazing job. And as we talked at the start of the conversation doing a great, great job in very tough economic times.
And so to label schools that are getting better each year as failures, that's demoralizing to hardworking teachers and principals. It's confusing to parents. It's confusing to the community. And so, we've challenged Congress to fix the law. And we want to fix it together in a bipartisan way, and we want to fix it with a real sense of urgency.
I absolutely hope that happens. But if it doesn't happen, I'm prepared to use our waiver authority to provide some relief now to states and to districts that are doing this hard work.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking to Education Secretary Arne Duncan about contemporary issues in the news that affect education.
Here's an issue that you testified in Congress about recently. The DREAM Act, it's a proposed law that would create a pathway to citizenship for many children who are brought to this country without proper authorization by their parents when they were children.
In Congressional testimony last week, you talked in support of the DREAM Act. How do you see this as an educational issue?
DUNCAN: I'm a passionate, passionate supporter of the DREAM Act. And quite frankly, Michel, I think as a country we have our priorities absolutely backwards on this. To deny young children who have, you know, come to this country, their parents brought them sometimes when they were infants. They've worked hard. They've gone to school. They've gotten good grades. They've been community leaders. To deny them the chance to go to college is absolutely crazy. And we need their talents. We need their expertise. We need their creativity. We need their ingenuity. We need them to create the jobs of the future.
And so, it's two things. One, this is an issue of fairness to not give them a chance to go to college is simply un-American. It's not fair. And secondly, as a country, we have, I think, a selfish interest that we need their talents and we don't want them to be the next generation of teachers and entrepreneurs and engineers and innovators or they're going to be stuck doing, you know, under-the-table, you know, small-time jobs the rest of their life, you know, for cash.
MARTIN: Well, it's...
DUNCAN: It's got to change.
MARTIN: It's obviously a very emotional issue for many people on both sides of the question. What about people like Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn who argued that this creates a reward? It's actually a reward for people who have broken the law. This is what he said. I'm just going to play a short clip from his response last week on Congress, just so that people have a sense of what some of the other side of the argument is. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
Senator JOHN CORNYN: What parent would not be tempted to immigrate illegally on the hope that if not they but maybe their children would be given the gift of American citizenship?
MARTIN: How do you respond to that (unintelligible)?
DUNCAN: Well, it's simply not true. First of all, these young people haven't broken the law. They've done nothing wrong. And in fact, many of them have been exemplary, you know, youngsters and teenagers and community leaders. It's as if, you know, if I did something wrong, Michel, it's as if my children would receive that penalty rather than me. That's just not how we worked.
Secondly, in terms of, you know, creating a sense of, you know, longer term for folks to come here, the way the bill is written is that you would have to have been in this country for five years prior to the passage of the law to qualify to get this financial aid. You'd have to be in good standing. And there's nothing on a foreign basis that would allow folks who come to this country tomorrow to participate.
So these, again, these are red herrings. It doesn't reflect reality and it doesn't reflect the urgent need we have. We have, in these tough economic times, Michel, we have about two million high-wage, high-skill jobs that are unfilled today because we don't have the talent to fill those jobs.
And when we have all these smart, talented, young people, who has the potential to fill those jobs and then be productive citizens and to pay taxes and to contribute to society, to deny that opportunity doesn't make sense.
The final point I'll make on this is that the Congressional Budget Office, which is, you know, nonpartisan, has estimated that over the next 10 years, if we educate these young people, if we allow them to go to college, this will actually reduce the deficit by a billion dollars because of their increased productivity.
So at a time when we're trying to, you know, reduce the deficit and to put everything on the table, where we have something that increases productivity, reduces the deficit by a billion dollars, to not look at that in these tough economic times, it's, again, just doesn't make any sense whatsoever.
MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, we wanted to ask you about a program that you launched earlier this year with movie director Spike Lee. It's an effort to recruit, train, place and develop 80,000 African-American male teachers by the year 2015. We just haven't had a chance to talk to you about this initiative since you initiated it. Tell us what it's about and why do you feel this is important and how is it going?
DUNCAN: Yeah, this is so important. I just worry a lot, Michel, that increasingly our teacher workforce doesn't reflect the tremendous diversity of our nation's young people. And if you look across the country today, less than 2 percent, less than one in 50 of teachers are African-American male. Less than 2 percent is a Latino male.
And then we wonder why young boys of color struggle. And I just want our teacher workforce to reflect the tremendous diversity of the country. So we anticipate over the next four, five, six years, we're going to need as many as a million new teachers in this country is that baby boomers retire. And to bring in this great next generation of talent will change public education for the next 30 years.
So it's been a lot of fun. I've been out many places around the country. I have another Teach event scheduled in August. We have a website, teach.gov that I encourage people to look at. But I just can't think of anything more important. And if people want to contribute to the community, if they want to give back, if they want to help to transform lives, there's nothing more rewarding, nothing more important they can do than to become a teacher. And we're going to continue to push this very, very hard.
MARTIN: What's the sell, though? These kids will be picking up the newspapers and reading about teacher layoffs in places that they may very well want to teach? What's the sell?
DUNCAN: Yeah, well, again, we have to look over the horizons. As I just said, we're going to need as many as a million new teachers over the next six years. So we're going to be as a country, despite the tough economic times, we're actually going to be hiring in between 100,000 and 200,000 teachers every single year.
And so these are tough times, no question. But the reality is, we're going to have about a third of our teacher workforce retire. So there is actually tremendous need out there. And, again, I just can't think of a better way to make a difference and to contribute to the community. And all of us are where we are today because we had great teachers in our lives. And there's just not a - there's no better role you can play, no greater impact you can have than in the classroom.
MARTIN: Arne Duncan is the U.S. secretary of Education. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from his office in Washington, D.C. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us.
DUNCAN: Thanks. Have a great day. Take care now.
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