Obama Plans To Hit Education Hard In 2011
One thing President Barack Obama made abundantly clear in his first two years as president is that he is at his best when speaking about the issues facing future generations of American voters, now too young to follow the vitriol of most political debates.
For all of the flack he gets for sounding like a “Harvard professor,” Obama appeared quite the opposite in Tucson when he eulogized 9-year-old shooting victim Christina-Taylor Green and put the discussion of America’s future in human terms.
He knows this young generation well, living with two of its most famous members—daughters Sasha and Malia, 12 and 9, whom he often mentions in his speeches and weekly addresses.
In large measure, Obama’s goals for his own daughters help frame his compelling case for changes in American educational systems. He wants the U.S. to lead the world in college completion rates by 2020. He wants students to pay less for their education. He wants teachers to be held accountable for the performance of their students.
But his goals are so ambitious that many say they can’t—and won’t—be met.
Obama’s education reform was once the crown jewel of his administration, receiving praise across party lines. His plans to infuse federal money in the nation’s lowest-performing schools, open more charter schools and amp up the pressure put on teachers for their students to perform well, sounded fresh and revolutionary. But as the political climate heated up, particularly around the midterm elections, his agenda came under fire.
When the president delivers his second State of the Union Address on Tuesday night, experts say Obama will hit education reform hard and make it a large focus of the 112th Congress.
Education reform may be one of the few places Obama can find consensus among Democrats and Republicans.
But speculation is rampant as to whether the president will succeed in rewriting the Bush administration’s 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, given that a divided Congress seems to agree on the law’s failure but disagrees on how to fix it.
“There is a very broad agreement that the No Child Left Behind law and its implementation has shown some shortcomings—it’s too rigid, too dependent on high stakes testing,” said Cal Jillson, an expert on presidential and congressional politics and a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “There’s common ground in a sense that everybody believes that No Child Left Behind has been something of a straightjacket and is causing a great deal of concern across most of the states.”
But regardless of how politicians on both sides see it, pressure from the right could block Obama’s agenda at all costs.
“Republicans are showing a pretty strong commitment to positioning themselves to make Barack Obama a one-term president,” said Doug Mitchell, an expert on education and school reform and a professor of education at the University of California, Riverside. “And consequently, they are staking out positions that are serious challenges to Democrats.”
The 2001 rewrite of the law, which was a pet project of former President George W. Bush in his first year in office, has been criticized for setting unrealistic goals and expectations for the nation’s schools by improperly emphasizing teacher evaluations and giving weight to school test scores in funding decisions.
Many also question what role the federal government should play in what some see as purely local decisions.
While Democrats, including Obama, are pushing to pool more money into education spending, some Republicans want the federal government’s hands out of education entirely.
“A lot of Republicans believe that education is primarily a state and local interest, it’s not a federal interest,” said Allan Saxe, an expert in state and local governments and an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. “The Obama administration seems to be moving more and more toward national control of education, perhaps at all levels, where Republicans are saying, ‘Leave it alone.’”
But Jillson said the “old lines” dividing Republicans and Democrats over local and state responsibility versus national responsibility are “much murkier” since the Bush administration increased national control through NCLB.
Under Obama’s blueprint to rewrite NCLB, states would be given more flexibility in how they interpret the law’s regulations with hopes of avoiding a “one-size-fits-all” model.
“It might well be that a place [Republicans and Democrats] could meet is that idea that the testing regime is too rigid and needs to be broadened out, more qualitative in addition to quantitative measures,” Jillson said. “The meeting place may be Republicans backing off a bit from defending the Bush testing regime and Democrats backing off a bit from their demands that more money be put into the program.”
Republicans fear the “complete overhaul” Democrats are discussing and see it as dangerously similar in size and consequence to the health care and stimulus laws.
“There are a lot of philosophical questions,” Saxe said. “Does everybody need to go to college? Who’s going pay for it? What kind of a system are we going to have?”
Citing the 2010 passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and Michelle Obama’s focus on childhood obesity and nutrition, Saxe notes, “Those are noble goals, but the question is who should be doing it—if at all? Is education a matter of feeding students and telling them what they can and cannot eat or is it teaching them things?”
Obama is expected to mention the need to increase education funding in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night. In his visit to a General Electric Co. plant in Schenectady, N.Y., on Friday, Obama listed education as one of the main ways the U.S. can better compete.
He spoke of the consequences of a less educated nation, “A generation ago, we led all nations in college completion, but today, 10 countries have passed us…And the countries that out-education us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”
He also hit the same theme in his 2010 State of the Union address, saying that education is key to remaining economically and globally competitive as a nation.
“In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education,” he said. “And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.”
His education initiatives got a large boost from the 2010 stimulus bill, also known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which pumped billions of dollars into creating new learning programs, strengthening elementary and secondary education and improving teacher effectiveness.
But his wish to add more money to education is not going over well in Washington.
Adding fuel to the fire is the House Republicans’ “Pledge to America,” which initially promised $100 billion in spending cuts, but has since been talked down.
But Republicans are not to be underestimated, Mitchell said, especially considering the amount of “discipline” they’ve shown.
“Democrats are not organized into anything like what the Republicans have been in the first two years of the Obama administration,” he said. “I don’t know whether the Republicans will continue to believe they need to win the public debate rather than the congressional debate or whether now that they have one house of Congress they'll begin to take government seriously instead of politics.”
GOPers remain adamant that they will make extensive spending cuts—some of which could decrease spending for public services like education.
Some reported estimates show that cuts to education under the Pledge could be as much as $15 billion—though the Pledge does not once mention education specifically.
But Saxe said Democrats may find a way to reform education without the support of Republicans.
“Where they can’t legislate so easily they’re going to regulate,” he said, noting some of the proposed changes could be done by the Department of Education.
Jillson said Democrats may need to be creative and find “budgetary flexibility” in an agreement with teachers unions and other special interest groups.
Such compromises, whether on teacher evaluations or standardized testing, could bring major change to education without a battle for money in a tight-wad Congress. Such pragmatic thinking would not address all of the deeper philosophical goals that inspire Obama, but it might provide common ground with his Republican critics.
As Saxe, at the University of Texas, put it: "No Child Left Behind was obviously not very satisfactory. Maybe some children ought to be left behind. That sounds terrible but it may be true…It seems like President Obama wants everybody to go to college and that may not be at all what society needs and wants.”
For more from Neon Tommy's special series examining Obama at the midpoint of his first term, click here.