Laurene Powell Jobs Engages Education Secretary Arne Duncan On School Reform, Immigration Legislation

May 1, 2013
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Laurene Powell Jobs at NewSchools Summit 2013 on Wednesday. (Photo: Dennis Helge Sanner)

Recently, the very private Laurene Powell Jobs has become a more vocal figure. Last month, she made her first televised appearance since the death of her husband, Apple AAPL cofounder Steve Jobs, pushing for immigration reform in a discussion with NBC’s Brian Williams. That was followed by an interview with Bloomberg Radio to garner exposure for an immigration reform bill that would, among other things, give the children of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

On Wednesday, she seemed happy to defer the spotlight to United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the pair chatted on stage at the NewSchools Summit in partnership with The Aspen Institute in Burlingame, Calif. Powell Jobs turned from interview subject to inquisitor as she quizzed Duncan on improving the nation’s education system.

Powell Jobs, a NewsSchools Venture Fund board member known around Silicon Valley for her social advocacy, declared herself a supporter of the Education Secretary early on in the hour-long conversation, but stated her concerns with the widening gap in U.S. test scores and the lack of parent advocacy for better standards. Duncan agreed, declaring simply: “We’re not serious about closing the gap as a country.”

“Obviously [parents] need to make this a national priority in the way that other countries have in the last decade,” said Powell Jobs. “Education has never really been a voting issue. How do we make it a voting issue and how do we collectively as a country decide we’re in the middle of an urgent state?”

On raising parent concern, Duncan admittedly gave himself “a very low grade on that in the first term” and said it was a top priority not to duplicate that in his second term.

“I wish we had a lot more parents demanding a world-class education for our kids,” he said in response. “You watch the presidential debates, education was not a big issue… When you poll the American public, everyone says that their school is OK, but the rest of the country’s schools aren’t. That is physically impossible.”

Eliciting bursts of applause from a crowd of about 500 packed into a San Francisco Airport Marriott conference room, Duncan proved a contrast from Powell Jobs’ on-stage partner at last year’s event, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. The secretary was clear on what his first term lacked, and didn’t hold any punches when blaming Congress for education reform gridlock.

As a facilitator for the conversation, Powell Jobs jumped on an opportunity early to discuss the connection of education reform to immigration policy. With much of her attention focused on the latter, she quizzed Duncan on his views of current immigration laws.

“The American dream is what? To have a better life for your child,” the secretary responded. “It’s one thing we didn’t get done first term and it’s something we now have an opportunity literally in the next couple months to fundamentally break through here. Immigration reform and educational opportunity, these things absolutely go hand-in-hand.”

Duncan said that over the next four years, one of his main areas of focus would be improving student readiness as children enter kindergarten. He said the lack of preparation in preschools led to an immediate lag in education, which could possibly lead to students being behind for their whole lives. He also stressed the important of integrating technology into modern education, especially massive open online courses (MOOCs) guided by the likes of entrepreneurs like Salman Khan (who gave a speech earlier in the day at the conference).

To close, Powell Jobs urged the secretary to get as much done as possible in his remaining time under the Obama administration.

“You only have another three years and nine months so keep speaking the truth,” she said. “We’re relying on you.”