Topeka U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday said the nation must work on closing the "opportunity gap" and he decried cuts to public schools.
Speaking on the steps of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, which he described as "hallowed ground," Duncan said while the country had taken great strides since the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation, much more needed to be done.
"We as a nation are still far from truly achieving educational equality," he said.
He said minorities are less likely to take advanced science and math classes, and be placed in gifted programs. That translates into fewer opportunities once they finish school, he said.
Duncan, the former head of the Chicago school system, said he disagreed with a budget plan by Republican vice presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to reduce education funding.
"Education is not an expense on a budget line," Duncan told the crowd of about 100 people. "It's an investment," he said.
He cited Highland Park High School in Topeka as an example of a school that is improving with the assistance of a special federal grant aimed at raising achievement levels at low performing schools. "It's real, it's exciting," Duncan said of the work of HPHS Principal Beryl New, a former associate principal at Lawrence High School.
New, who attended Monroe Elementary, which houses the Brown v. Board site, said when she was a student there, her teachers had high expectations. "And these were expectations extended to all children. At Monroe Elementary, no child was left behind," she said.
In a brief question and answer period with reporters, Duncan said states that were reducing school funding were making a mistake.
"A strong economy and great education; those two things are inextricably linked," he said. "To somehow think we need less children in Head Start, we need higher class size, less after school programs, less arts and music and P.E., less access to Pell grants, that is mind-boggling to me. It makes no sense whatsoever," he said.
Duncan's visit was a stop on a 10-day bus tour that ends Friday.