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Education is the ultimate bipartisan issue: Fmr. Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Fmr. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan joins Yahoo Finance's On the Move to discuss the decline in enrollment at universities in the U.S. and why the K-12 model is broken.

Video Transcript

- We want to turn to education now, because there is a lot to talk about. We are joined by Arne Duncan, he's former Secretary of Education. He is now with the Emerson Collective, as well as our Reggie Wade, who covers education for us. This conversation's part of our Road to Recovery segment, it's focused on education, and it's brought to you by TIAA. Arne, thank you so much for joining us.

One of the headlines that we've been watching closely here has to do with college enrollment. We learned today that first year college enrollment for this semester had fallen by 16%, overall undergraduate enrollment down about 4%. What do you think are going to be sort of the enduring changes potentially brought about to higher education as a result of the pandemic?

ARNE DUNCAN: Well, first I think that this year's, you know, reduction in enrollment, hopefully I pray it's a one time hit. Lots of young-- lots of freshmen, incoming freshmen, taking a gap year. My daughter is a freshman, she decided to go with lots of her friends, decided to take that gap year. So I don't see that lasting. I guess we hope that doesn't last.

What's going to change in terms of higher ed? A couple things. I think this is really challenging. All of us, Higher Ed and K-12 as well. What should stay online? Which should stay virtually? What actually gets better delivered, more effective, more efficient online, versus in person? How do we continue to reduce the cost of college?

How do we make it more affordable for young people and families who were struggling before with the cost of college? And so many families have taken a huge financial hit, you know, through the pandemic. How do we make things more affordable, more accessible for them? So in a really dark time, I think we'll see more innovation. I think we'll see more creativity. And long-term that actually might be a good thing.

REGGIE WADE: Secretary Duncan, Reggie Wade here. How do you think that the K through 12 education system in the US is handling the pandemic from where you sit?

ARNE DUNCAN: Good to see you again. I'll just say that what's been devastating to me, I'm always very honest, is just a-- is a lack of leadership at the federal level. And that's had just a tremendously destructive impact on our economy, on education, on kids. But at the local level, I'm seeing just remarkable leadership and humility, urgency of superintendents since the start of the pandemic in March.

We've been doing a weekly call around food distribution. Schools aren't just places of education, they're social safety nets. Districts throughout the pandemic have served tens of millions of kids and their families and community meals every single day. Didn't drop the ball there.

Thinking about social emotional health. Children who are dealing with trauma. Children whose families' lives have been upended, you know, with unemployment and instability. Making sure we take care of kids, and thinking about education.

But I keep saying, I don't want us to go back to quote unquote "normal," because normal didn't serve too many children well enough. We need to reinvent, we need to reimagine what education looks like. Just a couple quick thoughts.

One. Why do we have summers off? Makes no sense. We have so many kids that are so far behind now. Our kids aren't working in the fields anymore. Our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy. Children who need more help, who need more time, we have to get that to them.

I get-- like we talked about, on the higher Ed side, thinking about how we use technology. How we use our best teachers to reach more students. It's a chance to be really creative there. Then I would argue big picture. We need to just change our model. We have a K to 12 model that's served us pretty well for the past 100 years. I think that's insufficient now. I think we need to move to a pre-K through 14 model.

Start earlier, with our babies, and then a high school diploma is obviously critical, but it's insufficient. Some form of education beyond that, you know, four year universities, two year community colleges, trade technical vocational training. Every high school graduate has to have a plan for furthering their education once they come out of here.

The final thing I'll say is that what the pandemic has also done is it's really revealed the deep disparities, the deep inequities across our society, and education isn't immune. So we know the children, the communities who are the most marginalized, most vulnerable, have been the hardest hit by this. We have to really do all this work with an equity lens, with a real sense of what's fair, and how do we help every child reach their real potential?

REGGIE WADE: Secretary Duncan, as you know we have an election coming up in just a few weeks. If Vice President Biden were to become the next president, what would you like to see the next Education Secretary focus on first?

ARNE DUNCAN: Well, there's so much unfortunately that we have to sort of, you know, patch up. And there's so much that's been, you know, just neglected, and wrong policy. So I'll just say a few different things. You have to sort of prioritize, you can't do it all.

First, I'll always say that our best investment is in high quality early childhood education. We have to make sure our babies get off to a good start and enter kindergarten ready to be successful. So I'd love to see an investment there.

Secondly, we have to close this digital divide. We have to make access to technology, to hardware, to Wi-Fi, to the internet, as ubiquitous as air and water. We have children who, you know, sort of fell off of the COVID slide and the summer slide. We have unfortunately way too many students who literally have not returned back to school this fall. We have to reach them, we have to again equalize the playing field. So I would make a very significant play there.

Third, we have to invest. Our school systems still don't have the PPE. They don't have the cleaning supplies they need. We just need to have a major investment. When you see property taxes, sales taxes, and the local, state level go down so significantly, the only way to backfill is at the federal level. And again, the absence of leadership there has been unbelievably disturbing. So there's a number of all urgent, all important, and you have to try and prioritize those but--

- Let me interrupt you.

ARNE DUNCAN: --there's no honeymoon period, you have to hit the ground ready to run.

- Let me interrupt you, because everything you're talking about whether you agree or disagree. When you talk about an evolution here, are you-- do you still want education to be local control? As a local reporter, I've covered the battles over property tax increases to fund education from Michigan to Florida. is it time for the federal government to take total control? Is that what you're saying?

ARNE DUNCAN: No, that's never going to happen in education. What I'm saying is that when you have a pandemic that affects us all, you need a national response to it. This pandemic doesn't know red versus blue, it doesn't know liberal versus conservative. When you have massive unmet need, that is the role of the federal government to step up.

The three things. I think the federal government can do uniquely in education. One is fight for equity. So I talked about pre-K there. Secondly is fight for excellence. And third is innovation. How do we continue to scale and build upon what's working? I think those are the appropriate roles of the federal government.

- But without federal control-- and I'm not saying I'm for it or against it-- you get these huge disparities. I think we spend more per pupil in New York City for instance than other localities. But the outcome of what we get is different than, say what you get in Berrien Springs, Michigan. How do you do what you're talking about without federal control? That's where the money comes from, if not locally.

ARNE DUNCAN: Again, 90% of funding as you know comes at the state and local level. So that's-- I think that's still going to always be the case. Or, you know, it has been forever, probably will be forever. What I think we all have to do-- for me, education is the ultimate bipartisan, nonpartisan issue.

It's nothing Republican or Democrat about more kids having access to pre-K. There's nothing Republican or Democrat about raising high school graduation rates. There's nothing Liberal or Conservative about having more young people prepared to go to college and being able to afford it.

What I think I will challenge all of us, frankly, as voters, wherever we are on the political spectrum, to vote for political candidates at the local and state and national level who will put their reputations behind improving educational opportunity. And that's honestly what does not happen. We don't go to the voting booths thinking about education. And again, I don't really blame the politicians, I put the onus on us as voters.

- Well, and I think the divergence comes when it comes to funding to all of these things that you're talking about for sure. Arne Duncan, thank you so much for spending some time with us. He's the former Secretary of Education, now managing partner at the Emerson Collective. Appreciate it Arne, and thanks [AUDIO OUT] as well.