So how does President-elect Obama (boy, that sounds good!) move forward on education given the twin obstacles of a bad economy and a ballooning federal deficit — along with opportunities presented by the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (AKA NCLB) in 2009 or 2010 and a Democratic-controlled Congress?
It seems that education will inevitably take a back seat to economic recovery and foreign policy issues (Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, etc.). However, the good news is that some amount of deficit spending on infrastructure and investments in areas such as education will likely occur. I expect to see ESEA reauthorization as the primary vehicle for enactment of many of Obama’s k-12 education reform ideas. In addition, Obama will likely rhetorically link education to economic revitalization and future American competitiveness. Aspects of his proposed focus on math and science will find a policy niche here.
A major question, of course, is who will be the next Education Secretary. Easy answer: Probably not someone from Texas. Hard answer: Who exactly from the other 49 states? Well, in my opinion, the likely candidates might include Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, former West Virginia Governor and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education Bob Wise, former New Jersey Governor (a Republican) and Drew University president Tom Kean, former South Carolina Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and Paul Vallas, New Orleans superintendent and former Chicago Public Schools chief.
I’m not basing these possibilities on any special inside knowledge (c’mon, I live in Wisconsin now — wadda I know?!?!)– just an educated guess. So it means that the next Ed Secretary will be someone NOT on this list. Other education leaders who probably won’t be appointed Secretary but who are likely to play a important leadership role in the U.S. Department of Education or more broadly in the Obama Administration include Linda Darling-Hammond, Danielle Gray, Heather Higginbottom, Michael Johnston, Andy Rotherham, and Jon Schnur.
OK, that’s the Obama side. What about the Republicans? I agree with Eduwonk that the Republican Party is probably headed for what he terms possibility #2.
We could see a return to the slash and burn and culture war approach of the 1990s (or its last gasp). Sarah Palin hasn’t been hostile to public schools in Alaska but if she sees these sorts of politics as a way to a political future in 2012 it’s hard to imagine she wouldn’t turn on a dime and others wouldn’t follow. This would mean a lot of ideas to effectively eviscerate the federal role in education, cut spending, devolve authority to the states and so forth. In a tight fiscal climate state “flexibility” can have a siren-like appeal because it gives states more flexibility around using federal dollars to plug other budget holes. The likely lack of Republican moderates on the Hill will only add to this dynamic.
But, if the experience in some states as well as the likely composition of the House and Senate after the dust settles is any guide, I’d bet on the second option. That means a lot of theater, but not good news if you want to see a serious national debate about ideas for improving our public schools.
Don’t expect to see a major national debate about education, but probably modest changes to existing policies (a lessening of NCLB’s rigid accountability provisions and an increased emphasis on value-added methodologies), some targeted investments (early childhood education, differentiated teacher pay, teacher professional development & support, dropout intervention), a focus on higher education (a college tax credit, financial aid simplification, student success at 2- and 4-year colleges), and, if the economy permits in a couple of years, some greater across-the-board investments.
My overall bet is that education policy will not transform itself nearly as much as some other policy areas — health care, environment, energy, foreign policy — under Obama’s watch. While I think that Jay Mathews’s take on this question in last Friday’s Washington Post is a bit strong — certainly the headline is (“Why The Next Education President Will Be Like Bush”) — he’s definitely on the right track.
But the devil is in the details, and I predict that many important changes will be made to improve public education in general and ESEA specifically, enhance the quality of teaching, and create more successful and sensible pathways to higher education over the next four years.
Optimism, indeed, is back.