U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Wake Tech today, where he touted the president's jobs bill and highlighted the importance of community colleges to the nation's economic recovery.
At an hourlong town-hall-style meeting with faculty and students, Duncan said the American Jobs Act would pump $60 billion into education, including $30 billion to save teacher jobs, $25 billion for renovation of K-12 schools and $5 billion for community college construction. The bill has met stiff resistance in Congress, and Duncan acknowledged that it would have an uphill battle.
"This is the right investment," Duncan said at Wake Tech, which had 5,000 students on a waiting list for classes this fall. "Those 5,000 people who want to come back to school here, those are community assets. Those are the future nurses, law enforcement officials and IT professionals who this community desperately needs to have a thriving and vibrant economy.
"When we deny them opportunity, we're not helping anybody."
Duncan called the nation's community colleges "the unrecognized gems" of the education sector. He said the campuses are "baby United Nations" that become economic engines by training students at a low cost and connecting them to job opportunities.
"We have to help community colleges increase their capacity," Duncan said.
Besides pushing the president's jobs plan, Duncan talked about the need for the United States to dramatically increase college completion rates. The U.S. is 16th in the world on that score, he said.
Greater use of technology in teaching may engage students and help prevent dropout rates, he said. He called Monday's shooting that wounded a student at a Fayetteville high school "a devastating tragedy" and said unfortunately security has to be a priority expense for school districts.
He said colleges and universities should contain costs in an era of economic hardship for families and the marketplace will help accomplish that. "People are going to start voting with their feet," he said.
Duncan said he was encouraged with the results this month of the Wake County school board election; he said he will be closely watching the runoff election, which will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the board. He has been critical of the board's move toward neighborhood schools.
He said he didn't know the details of the new school choice plan recently approved by the board, but said that students need diverse environments to succeed in today's world.
"I think it's so critically important that our nation's young people be able to grow up around students that look different from them, grow up in a different community and be comfortable and confident in that environment," he said.
Former Gov. Jim Hunt attended the Wake Tech event, along with local business leaders and state education officials. Earlier in the day, Duncan spoke at an invitation-only leadership summit for business executives at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.