I know from my own experience leading a school district that this time of year is especially exciting—and challenging. New students. New staff members. In many states, you’re implementing new standards that come with even higher expectations and greater accountability. And in too many places, you and your teams are doing it all with less money. So I wanted to write as this new school year gets under way and thank you.
Here in Washington, I’m starting my fifth full school year as Secretary of Education. My job comes with its own challenges, but one of its great benefits is the vantage point I have to observe and support the great progress that’s happening in American education. We have a lot to celebrate, including the highest high school graduation rate in three decades and more young adults attending college than a decade ago.
Yet we have a long way to go. Too many young people—and especially too many students from low-income and vulnerable populations—aren’t participating in that success.
This week, I will visit early learning centers, schools, a community college, a university, and a military base in four Southwestern states. The theme of this year’s back-to-school bus tour is “Strong Start, Bright Future,” reflecting the importance of starting the school year with energy and focus, investing in early education for our youngest learners, and remaining committed to reforms that better serve our students and support our educators. I invite you to follow along online and hear what some of your colleagues are doing toward our shared goals. (If you’re a hashtag user, this trip is #EDtour13.)
I always return to my office encouraged and informed by what I’ve seen on the road. My staff and I meet superintendents, board members, principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, and staff who inspire us. We hear from parents, state and local elected officials, and business and higher education leaders who are pitching in to make their schools and communities stronger. And we meet phenomenal students.
As we travel around the country, one thing is clear. There are innovative teachers and leaders working hard to build successful school systems that serve all students. That’s why this department has now provided more than 40 states with flexibility from the rigid provisions of No Child Left Behind. As you know, officially it’s the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and it’s long overdue for a fix. In an op ed I wrote recently, I encouraged Members of Congress to look outside of Washington for the best solutions.
The school year that just passed was an unusually challenging one. The illogical federal budget cuts known as the sequester hurt disadvantaged students and schools while they were already down.
In Newtown, Connecticut, 20 students and six adults were gunned down at an elementary school—a horrific tragedy but, unbelievably, far from the only gun violence that shook communities last year. As one part of the federal government’s response, we joined several agencies in producing guides for developing emergency operations plans. I hope you will use these guides to inform your prevention and protection efforts, but I also hope you will never have an emergency situation occur.
It is often difficult for students to excel if they don’t feel safe. The same can be true in situations where families don’t have sufficient financial resources to obtain the health care that their children may need. Please join me and other community leaders across the country in encouraging America’s estimated 50 million uninsured who will be eligible for coverage to enroll in the Health Insurance Marketplace starting in October. You can find information tailored to school communities here. Every family, neighbor, educator, health care provider, and business knows the importance of well-educated and healthy children.
Finally, I want to make sure you know about the Department of Education’s Race to the Top program for school districts. The deadline to apply for this year’s $120 million competition is October 3. It’s a great opportunity for districts and their partners to think creatively about how to personalize learning and support innovation.
I try not to e-mail you more than once or twice a year, but if you want to stay in closer touch with the Department of Education, I invite you and your colleagues to sign up for e-mail updates and resources from ED at www.ed.gov/emailupdates.
Whether this is your first year in your position or your 15th, I wish you, your team, and your students a fantastic school year.
Click here for a QandA by Arne Duncan.