Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the economy won't improve without the billions of dollars for schools in President Barack Obama's recovery plan.
"If we want to stimulate the economy, we need a better-educated workforce," Duncan said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press.
"That's the only way, long-term, we're going to get out of this economic crisis," he said.
The stimulus plan is picking up criticism as it moves through Congress. Republicans complain that not all the money will create jobs immediately. Democrats admit it's true, but they say the economy needs long-term help, too.
"It's a historic chance to make things dramatically better," said Duncan, who was CEO of Chicago public schools until Obama picked him to serve in the Cabinet.
The education secretary said the stimulus measure, and its approximately $140 billion for schools, will help in three ways. In the near term, it will spend money to build and renovate classrooms, and it will keep hundreds of thousands of teachers from being laid off, he said. The package also includes money for long-term reforms.
The Obama administration is seeking to boost spending by nearly $500 million on reform-minded programs that fund teacher bonuses tied to student performance, and pay for charter school facilities and state data systems. The spending is in the stimulus plan approved Wednesday in the House, but it is not in the Senate version.
The chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. George Miller, predicted Wednesday the reforms ultimately would be funded: "These are the priorities of President Obama. I believe they'll make it through," said Miller, D-Calif.
Making schools more rigorous
Money for education makes up about one-sixth of the $819 billion stimulus measure approved by the House.
School spending includes money for grants that fund K through 12 and special education programs, aid to states to prevent budget cuts, a bonus fund to encourage reforms and money to build and renovate schools and upgrade technology.
Duncan said he views the stimulus as a way to make public elementary and secondary schools more rigorous and help prepare more kids to go to college.
College affordability is critical, Duncan said. The stimulus plan would double spending on Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college, raising the maximum award by $500, to $5,350.
"In our economy, never has it been more important to go to college," Duncan said. "Well, college has never been more unaffordable. And so increasing access is hugely important. Long-term, if we want a better economy, we need more people going to college."
Duncan is settling into his new job at the Education Department, which has 4,200 employees and a budget of $69 billion. He ate lunch with his family in the building's cafeteria last week, and he held a staff meeting where he stood in front of a screen that read, "Call me Arne." Duncan is still assembling a team of senior advisers.
He also is looking for a place to live, likely the Northern Virginia suburbs, where he plans to enroll his daughter and son in public school.