Four years ago when he took office, President Obama’s agenda was consumed with a number of economic and security issues that included a global financial meltdown, the collapse of the U.S. housing market, and two wars. Unfortunately, education was lumped into a host of issues struggling for exposure.
To be fair, Education Secretary Arne Duncan quickly identified four reform priorities for his department and the administration: higher standards, teacher effectiveness, state data management, and school improvement strategies. Perhaps more impressively, these priorities became action items that were inserted into major initiatives such as adoption of the Common Core State Standards, the Race to the Top grant competition, the Investing in Innovation funds and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers.
Now, with yesterday’s inauguration officially kicking off President Obama’s second term, educators are wondering what the next four years have in store. Here’s my take.
First and foremost, the leadership stays. Arne Duncan will continue as U.S. Secretary of Education. And while some of his assistants who have been working seemingly 24/7 for the past four years are expected to depart, a key player I expect to remain is assistant secretary for K-12 education, Deb Delisle, who was confirmed by the Senate for that position just last spring.
Certainly, higher standards, teacher effectiveness, state data management, and school improvement strategy will continue to be woven throughout the administration’s new proposals. But expect the department’s focus to expand beyond the K-12 arena. I believe you will see greater attention to the themes of preparation, accountability, and access both as it relates to early education and higher education. An expansion or increased investment in the Early Learning Challenge Grant program, which was modeled after the Race to the Top program to promote state improvements, is likely. This targeted competitive grant approach is both consistent with the Department’s funding strategy but also the most practical in a time of extreme government spending limits. The next four years will see a further tightening of the belt, regardless of what happens with sequestration, as Congress will have to cut $110 billion from the budget in each of the next four years.
At the higher education level, federal officials will probably start to carefully scrutinize tuition costs, graduation rates, and the demographic data of college students. With college and career readiness standards for K-12 students in place in 46 states, tough questions will be asked of college administrators about their enrollment standards, admissions process, skyrocketing costs, and dismal completion rates. Teachers colleges in particular will be closely looked at for the number of qualified teacher candidates they produce.
Finally, there is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Don’t expect much action from the Department on this issue for at least the next 18 months. Federal officials consider the NCLB waivers issued to now 35 states a short-term reauthorization of the law – a “three-fer” that 1) temporarily eliminated the need for Congress to pass a new law, 2) removed the most onerous of NCLB’s provisions while at the same time, and 3) instituted the administration’s own preferred strategies. Moreover, Duncan’s increasingly passive approach to ESEA reauthorization is now to the point where he is deferring to Congress to craft legislation on their own and only reacting to proposals as they are put forth. In other words, ESEA is not a priority for the Obama administration for the foreseeable future.
That’s my take on where education policy stands at the inauguration of President Obama’s second term. At the end of this month, ASCD will be introducing its Legislative Agenda for 2013. Look for another blog post from me then on what policies we’ll be pursuing in the New Year!