The president spent the past year setting up the education agenda for his second term. Now all he has to do is put the strategy in motion. It has three parts—access to college; waivers for state public-school systems; and early-childhood development.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan will stay in his Cabinet post to guide the existing department programs to the finish line. That means the incentives the administration now dangles in front of states to create teacher evaluations, to rework their student assessments, or to turn around failing schools will continue. “I’m a big believer in carrots rather than sticks,” Duncan told a group of educators in September.
Among Cabinet members, Duncan has an outsized influence on domestic policy. White House officials view the Education Department’s Race to the Top competitive grant program as one of the most successful ways the administration can encourage states to change policies without having to pony up lots of federal dollars. Of course, the $100 billion for education from the economic-stimulus package will not be available this time around. The administration has focused the last of the Race to the Top money from 2009 on early-childhood programs.
The Education Department’s waivers for No Child Left Behind are the best carrots available to Obama for enticing states to close failing schools and make teachers and principals more accountable for student achievement. Without the waivers, most states will face penalties for failing to meet outdated benchmarks. Because Congress has been unable to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, the administration’s waiver program is its only way out. The waiver process has gone smoothly since Duncan rolled it out last year, but the Education Department’s total control over how and when states get them has led to inevitable grumbling that the administration could delay applications for political reasons.
Meanwhile, Obama will likely devote his bully pulpit to higher education. The president wants the United States to again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, and to do that he will need to lean on higher-education institutions to keep their tuition down and their enrollments up. Ironically, neither Congress nor the White House can do much to lower tuition, because most federal college aid goes directly to students. Still, the higher-education law authorizing many student-aid programs expires next year, which will give Congress the opportunity to tinker with the formulas and the White House the chance to talk about it.