Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of secretary, spoke with Reuters about education's role in income inequality. The questions and answers have been edited for length.
Q: In a commencement speech in December 2011, you said education is still the "great equalizer." Is that true?
A: It must be the great equalizer. And in some places, education has been … a huge part of the inequity.… I really do believe that a high-quality education for every child in this country has to be at the core of restoring America to being first in the world in terms of economic mobility.
(I)f we're serious about closing the achievement gap, we have to close the opportunity gap. I don't think we as a country have been serious enough about closing the opportunity gap for the children and communities who need the most help.
We have invested massively in school-improvement grants ... and we have, partly as a result today, 700,000 less children in what we call "drop-out factories." (But) we have about a million young people who drop out of school each year in this country, and that is obviously economically unsustainable and it is morally unacceptable.
Q: Does Massachusetts show the limits of education as the great equalizer? It has seen one of the biggest increases in inequality in the past 20 years.
A: I think it shows that … this movement towards quality, toward access and toward early-childhood education has to reach every child and every community who needs it. And that is simply not the case yet in Massachusetts and around the country. So it's not a reason to back off. It's a reason frankly to double down and to accelerate the pace of change.
What I think you need to give is every child access to a world-class education…. There's still too many who don't have access to an elementary or a middle (school) or a high school with the greatest talent and the best resources and the right wrap-around services and a focus on preparing students for college and careers. And there are still too many not just poor but middle-class families who think that college is too expensive and unaffordable for them.
Q: Do you see an education gap based on income in higher education as well in college and universities?
A: No question that … disadvantaged families and more and more middle-class families … think college is for rich folk…. And it's a huge concern…. (For) the jobs of the future you've got to have some form higher education…. If you drop out, there is nothing out there for you. And if you just graduate from high school, very few of the high-wage jobs are there.
Q: Research suggests, and conservatives argue, that just creating a highly educated workforce doesn't spark economic growth. For example, North Carolina has had better growth than Massachusetts. Do you agree?
A: I think this is a huge piece of the answer and not the exclusive answer.… I think a skills crisis is a significant part of the challenge. So, again, it is just so critically important that we again lead the world in college-graduation rates. I think that would be a huge step forward in strengthening our economy, keeping good jobs in this country rather than going overseas… and reducing unemployment rates.
(Reporting By David Rohde and Kristina Cooke; Edited by Michael Williams)