Striking a combative tone, President Obama's top schools official on Monday blamed the "ideologues and extremists in our parties" for standing in the way of education reform.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it "political silliness" that some conservatives accused the Obama administration of trying to take over local school districts through a new state-fueled effort to set national learning standards called Common Core. But Duncan equally admonished education reform critics on the left for contributing to the status quo. Though he did not single them out, it included a veiled shot at teachers' unions, a major Democratic support base that has fought greater emphasis on teacher and school evaluations.
"You have some members of Congress who think the federal government has no role in public education, not as a backstop for accountability, not as a partner for enforcing laws and expanding educational opportunity and not as a supporter of innovation," Duncan said. "At the opposite extreme, other commentators declare a permanent state of crisis ... and they call for the most disruptive changes possible."
Duncan said there are too many people inside the Beltway who pretend to know all the answers on education and wouldn't budge on their ideals.
"Instead of talking with each other and, more importantly, actually listening to each other ... many of these people are just talking past each other, ignoring plain evidence and deliberately distorting the other's positions," Duncan said.
Speaking at the National Press Club as part of an effort to pressure Congress and states to act, Duncan also reiterated the president's State of the Union push for increased pre-K funding and called for higher pay for teachers that is "on par with other professions and reward those ... taking on the toughest of assignments." However, that seems unlikely in a Congress that can't even agree on how to fund government, a point not lost on Duncan, who blamed Republicans caving to their conservative base for the looming shutdown.
Duncan, who has served as education secretary for all of Obama's time in office, said he has seen a similar unwillingness in moderate Republicans to take on the Tea Party regarding education issues for fear of retribution from a conservative base that has grown increasingly skeptical of federal involvement with schools.
"Where are the reasonable Republicans here in Washington who can stand up to the Tea Party?" Duncan said. "The silence from our moderate friends troubles me more than the noise from the [far right]."
In the case of a shutdown, Duncan said the Education Department would do "everything we can" to ensure money continues to flow for student loans until the government is funded, but that may not be enough.
"At the end of the day, we just need Congress to get its act together," he said.