Obama’s Fragile Education Legacy

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The progressive philosopher and pedagogue John Dewey famously saw schools as key conduits for driving social change. That is, he thought that “social reorganization” depended upon “educational reconstruction.” For Dewey — like Plato, Rousseau, and countless others — education was a key factor in pursuing broad social, cultural, and political ends. It’s a relatively simple claim: control the schoolhouse and you control the future. To some degree, education determines our politics. Hence the hullabaloo about what we teach in schools: whether we promote religious theories of creation in science classes, and so forth.

But last week’s elections serve as a reminder: control of the schoolhouse is itself a political battle. Historically low voter turnout led to historically big wins for the Republican Party, so it’s time now to ask what that political change means for education.

The short answer? Not much.

As most Washington, D.C. watchers know, the fundamental Beltway political equation since 2010 has been working out whether House Speaker John Boehner can pass anything that President Obama is willing to sign. And, as others have already noted, making Congress more conservative isn’t likely to make that dynamic easier.

Take No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The current version of the nation’s major federal legislation has three particularly powerful levers. First, it requires states to collect and publish data on schools’ performance. Second, it attempts to target federal funds to schools serving high percentages of low-income students or other underserved populations (like English language learners). Third, it requires states to act to fix schools that persistently underperform. That is, the law uses federal leverage to increase transparency, equity, and accountability in American public education.

And sure, NCLB’s specific mechanisms for pursuing those goals are unpopular. But given that many states have historically punted on them without federal pressure, President Obama and most Democrats have shown little interest in kicking responsibility back to the states. Yet the last few Republican attempts at rewriting the law have done more to weaken the government’s ability to hold states to these priorities. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the authors of these efforts, have promised to pick up where they left off in the next session of Congress.

Is there any reason for Obama to tack to the right on education? I don’t think so. This is an area where he has deep, coherent convictions — and he largely accepts NCLB’s core aims as key federal priorities. To put it directly: the first African-American President of the United States is not likely to cooperate with Republicans who would weaken the federal government’s ability to force states to take educational equity seriously. For most of American history (and today), the decentralization of public education has been repeatedly used to protect de jure and de facto segregation, inequitable allocation of educational resources, and a dizzying variety of civil rights abuses. I’d gladly be wrong about this, but I see no way that Republicans starting with Alexander’s and Kline’s previous efforts will be able to craft anything that Obama could sign.

What’s more, education is actually an area where the Obama Administration has a lot to protect. Other than when they’re shouting about the Common Core State Standards, folks underestimate the degree to which Race to the Top grants and waivers to NCLB have dramatically moved the needle on key education reform priorities.

But if Obama’s education agenda is a bigger legacy piece than people realize, it’s also exceedingly fragile. States who developed new teacher evaluations, adopted new academic standards, and reworked their accountability systems at administration’s urging won’t necessarily continue with those efforts without federal pressure. The longer Obama and his team can stay the course, the more time states will have to implement and consolidate these reforms.

Want a glimmer of hope that something—anything—might get done in the next two years? In his own piece reflecting on the elections’ implications for education, the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess said, “Talk of new pre-K spending is dead.” But at an AEI panel last Thursday, he warned that Republicans should be wary of saying things like “Pre-K doesn’t work” or “I’m against pre-K.” Republican governors like Michigan’s Rick Snyder have demonstrated willingness to explore substantial new early education investments. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also been pushing in this direction. Could there be movement on pre-K after all? (My colleagues at New America offer more — and mostly pessimistic — thoughts on this here.)

Please note: I’m not making any strong predictions so much as trying to sketch out the current political landscape. Given congressional Republicans’ unpredictability on budget measures in recent years, it’s entirely possible that this new, more conservative crop could generate another crisis that scrambles the incentives around education legislation. But I doubt it. Very few legislators are coming — or returning — to Washington because of their stances on education issues, so education reforms simply aren’t a particularly powerful bargaining chip.

By the same token, Obama has very little to lose by vetoing any objectionable education legislation that reaches his desk. His legacy on education is more or less fixed at this point. And nothing he does on education will meaningfully affect the Democrats’ chances in 2016. For better or worse, education simply doesn’t have that sort of political juice.

This isn’t the whole story, of course. I’ve only dealt with the prospects for federal changes here. The story at the state level is more complicated. In general, Republican state leaders are likely to be emboldened to push harder on education policy, given that conservatives with aggressive education credentials like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker survived serious reelection challenges. But as far as the feds are concerned, the American schoolhouse will keep chugging on the same track it’s been following. Check back in a few decades to see what sort of politics it gives us.

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.

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