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March 11, 2014

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Orchard Gardens in Roxbury Tuesday.

The country’s top education official is in Massachusetts for a two-day tour of schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is visiting schools in Boston, Worcester and Reading, where he’ll meet with community college officials and business leaders. Duncan is drumming up support for the Obama administration's education budget.

On Tuesday, visiting students at the Orchard Gardens Schools in Roxbury, Duncan said the budget, released last week, would help all student loan borrowers manage their debt by expanding pay-as-you-earn benefits. These benefits allow debt-laden students to pay back their loans based on how much money they earn in their new position. 

“Folks who are making a ton of money, can pay back more," Duncan explained. "Folks who come to fantastic schools like this one to teach, folks that work in a medical clinic or legal aid clinic will pay back less.”

No word yet on how the administration plans to pay for that plan.

Duncan also said the budget would offer incentives to reward those colleges that enroll, and graduate, more low-income students with less debt.

“We have a long way to go. We are not satisfied. We have to keep getting better faster," Duncan said. "And what’s amazing to me is so many folks tell me all the time that poor kids can’t learn, that black and brown children can’t learn, that poverty is destiny. And it is hard work. It is difficult. It is complex. It can be controversial."

Duncan’s visit to Massachusetts is part of a national effort to highlight federal investments in education. 

His visit also comes as the debate about whether the state should lift its cap on charter schools is heating up. 

Duncan is largely seen as a champion of charter school expansion. On Tuesday, though, he dodged the question.

"I want more high-performing public schools - be they traditional, be they turnaround, be they charter," Duncan said. "We just need more great public schools in this country of every form and fashion."

At the State House on Wednesday, charter school advocates gathered to show their support for a bill that would increase charter schools in the state's underperforming districts. Advocates argue charter schools are making more gains in closing achievement gaps than their public counterparts. 

State lawmakers and union leaders, though, believe more public charter schools would undermine public institutions.

The bill's fate is uncertain. Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz co-chairs the Legislature's Joint Committee on Education where the legislation is pending, and she has scaled back her initial expectation that a bill will make it to the full Legislature for a vote before a March 10 deadline.

"We are working hard to get to yes on giving more room for charter operators that are doing really well to expand," Chang-Diaz said in a statement. "We want to do so without taking tools out of the toolbox of district schools that are showing great promise."

boston public schools, department of education, new business models

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