While President Barack Obama’s stance on K-12 education was unclear when he entered the White House in January of 2009, initiatives such as No Child Left Behind Act waivers and grant competitions epitomized by the Race to the Top have shown his pursuit of an activist agenda of reform. Using federal stimulus funding, legislative influence and his own executive authority, the President has “made it really clear that the status quo in education is unacceptable,” says Roberto Rodriguez, a special assistant to the president for education policy.
Education Week presents a detailed assessment of Obama’s education record, noting that he has put the pressure on districts and states to:
• Hold individual teachers more accountable for their students’ performance of their students on standardized tests;
• Remove restrictions on the growth of charter schools;
• Take aggressive action to turn around state’s and school district’s lowest-performing schools; and
• Adopt common academic standards to prepare students for college and the workforce, bolstered by federal aid to help states develop common assessments.
Criticism From Both Democrats and Republicans
Progressive Democrats have criticized Obama’s support for charter schools and his emphasis on linking teacher evaluation to student outcomes. Republicans have taken issue with the push for states to adopt common standards, seen as a harbinger of of the adaptation of a national curriculum and testing, and censured the $100 billion in education spending in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. They have also objected to the waivers granted to states regarding aspects of the NCLB as curtailing constitutional law and contended that too much power has been given to the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.
The Obama Administration’s use of competitions such as Race to the Top, in which states competed to win $4.35 billion for agreeing to education reforms in such areas as teacher evaluation, was both a bone of contention but also praise. Only two states, Delaware and Tennessee, were winners, and critics note that states have been stumbling to implement promised reforms — but without the competition, it is questionable if they would even considered reforms at all.
Congress has become “weary” of the administration’s focus on grants, says Education Week. Besides Race to the Top, Obama has sought funds for these programs:
the i3 program, which aims to scale up promising practices at the state and district levels; Promise Neighborhoods, which helps communities pair education with health and other services; and the Teacher Incentive Fund, which gives grants to districts to create pay-for-performance programs.
In contrast, Obama has only requested small increases for funding for programs for disadvantaged students and special education students.
An Activist Agenda For US Education
Competitions like Race to the Top encouraged states to get serious about reform: In view of how poorly US education ranks in the world, and how long it takes for changes to be made in schools and education, the Race to the Top was notable for getting states and districts to take real measures to shake things up. The administration’s decision to use temporary waivers to give states more flexibility regarding NCLB is controversial, but was fueled by a pragmatic desire to address the problems in the law and quickly, especially given the administration’s frustration in not getting legislative support to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
On the campaign trail, Obama has emphasized his administration’s proposals for higher education over its work on K – 12. New legislation that seeks to have all federally backed student loans originate with the US Treasury instead of subsidized private lenders has drawn fire from Republicans, who see such as nothing less than a “federal takeover” of student loans, rather than an attempt to ensure that college students and their families will not be at the mercy of banks. The President is pushing a proposal to keep federal loans rates stable at 3.4 percent and with reason, given trillion-dollar student loan debt and the gloomy job prospects awaiting college graduates in today’s economy.
Obama has come under fire for efforts to keep public education public, through federal grants and programs that are in direct contrast to the sort of educational plan proposed by GOP candidate Mitt Romney, whose calls for reforms involve school vouchers. The President’s efforts, however promising, have yet to bear fruit but efforts to turn proposals into action capture a real spirit of reform and a long-term goal of improving education for all US students.
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