In a new Gallup poll, 68 percent of Americans say they believe President Obama will improve education in his second term, about the same percentage as when Gallup asked the same questions in 2008. And in a way, that optimism isn't too surprising: Education policy is one of the few areas where Obama gets high marks from Republicans, including 2012 GOP challenger Mitt Romney and possible 2016 candidate Jeb Bush, while still receiving the strong backing of teachers' unions. Still, there are many open questions about the direction Obama wants to take in the next four years.
The issue: Improving public education
K-12 public education is a critical issue for millions of American families, particularly with the U.S. education system falling behind those of many up-and-coming countries. Education has traditionally been a state and local issue in the U.S., with the federal government stepping in mostly to desegregate schools or help pay for student lunches. Then, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter created a cabinet-level Department of Education to collect data, deal with federal assistance to education, and enforce the few federal education laws on the books (mostly dealing with civil rights and privacy). The federal government took a much greater leap into K-12 education in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed his signature No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), mandating standardized testing to gauge student and school achievement. The law rewards schools that live up to demanding federal standards, and punishes those that don't.
President Obama has pushed for more federal funding of education, but also largely stuck with the standardized testing regime, even adding a component for evaluating teachers and principals in his voluntary $4.35 billion Race to the Top program. He appointed an education-reform advocate, Arne Duncan, as education secretary. But Obama has also proposed softening the punitive parts of No Child Left Behind, and he handed out NCLB waivers to 35 states in 2012, giving them more flexibility to improve their educations systems.
"The president sends out mixed messages" on education policy, Diane Ravitch, a New York University historian, tells The Huffington Post. "He says he doesn't want teachers teaching to the test, and that he likes that his daughters' school doesn't focus to the test, but I wish someone can get across the idea to him that he should want that for other children."
How Obama might succeed
During the campaign, Obama pledged to foster the hiring of 100,000 new math and science teachers, boost community colleges, and tackle rising college tuition — but that's mostly "vacuous campaign rhetoric," says Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute. Well, Obama should use his second term to "think big on education," says Richard Kahlenberg at The Century Foundation. And the area that needs the most work is in "providing better opportunities to truly disadvantaged children." That means a pivot away from our current "center-right education agenda," and a move toward policies that allow poor students to get a middle-class education experience. The best way to do that is drop support of charter schools in favor of magnet schools, and allow students to choose between different public schools. Will this take money? Sure. But if the economy improves, as most economists think it will, "Americans will be in a more generous and large-spirited frame of mind to tackle difficult issues."
We actually already know what Obama plans to do on education in his second term, says Fawn Johnson at National Journal. Along with using the federal levers at his disposal to try and lower college tuition, Obama will use NCLB waivers to influence state education policy, and direct the remaining Race to the Top funds to improve early-childhood education. All the pieces are in place — including Duncan, who's expected to stay around for the second term — so "now all he has to do is put the strategy in motion."
Why he might fail
Obama's biggest obstacle will be money, says Education Week's Alyson Klein. He is inheriting the same political dynamics of the past two years — a spending-averse GOP House and a small Democratic majority in the Senate — that "has been a recipe for gridlock on everything from budget decisions to reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act." He may have big plans and great ideas, but it's not clear he'll pay able to pay for them.
No Child Left Behind is also up for reauthorization, but if the waivers are any indication, it's not clear Obama will even do that. In fact, Obama 2.0 may not focus much on K-12 education at all, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel tells The Huffington Post. With limited budgets and conflicting research on the efficacy of school testing, Obama might well focus his second term on less controversial measures like expanding access to higher education and early-childhood development programs.
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