Obama’s Fragile Education Legacy

FILE - In this June 3, 2013 file photo, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, right, listens as President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The effort to rewrite the flawed No Child Le... FILE - In this June 3, 2013 file photo, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, right, listens as President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The effort to rewrite the flawed No Child Left Behind education law is heading for a partisan confrontation as House Republicans champion legislation that would strip the federal government of its powers to set standards for students and schools. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) MORE LESS
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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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  1. Avatar for wren wren says:

    Former teacher here. You have no idea how destructive NCLB has been. I warn every young person I know to stay far away from the efficiency-machine that is education today. The machine swallows up anything that tries to grow in the schools. Duncan’s approach, reformers’ approach is ideological. And whenever ideology trumps people you get systems that people later regret.

  2. Obama’s Educational Legacy? You mean appointing Arne “Class size doesn’t matter” Duncan to the head of the DOE, who repeatedly stated that classes in elementary schools could have as many as 60 students in them and still be successful? You mean supporting Michelle Rhee and her glorious attempts to weaken one of the few unions left in the country all in an attempt to push her own personal ideology of teaching? His Educational Legacy looks good only in comparison to the functional illiterate who occupied the office before him and instituted No Child Left Behind, probably the single biggest obstacle preventing any children from succeeding in todays’ world.

    I don’t have a link offhand on the nationwide data, but here is a link that shows the US average SAT score from 2004 to 2014. Do note how terrible and absolutely pathetic that is (and how much worse Texas is).


    No, Obama’s education legacy is not a positive one. He has nothing to fear about Republicans tarnishing it. It is already crap.

  3. I teach at a community college, which means I get all of the students that NCLB left behind. Let me tell you, we can see exactly how destructive NCLB has been. It is a monstrosity of the highest order, and the single biggest impediment to student success in America today. The truly gifted and talented are intentionally stunted, while those that need more help with critical thinking are prevented from getting it, instead taught nothing more than how to take that one particular test to get the school its funding.

  4. Being fragile isn’t the issue. What President Obama’s education policies are is a stain on his legacy. I have yet to see any untainted evidence that NCLB has done any good anywhere. The President’s education legacy would have been better had he just canned NCLB entirely and said " you folks just stumble along on your own for a while." He has done what I didn’t believe was possible & made NCLB actually worse than it was.

    In Albany soon, the State Ed Dept is holding a “conversation” on testing PRESCHOOLERS (!) because things are just not bad enough yet, apparently.

  5. We are a nation that has gone from teaching Greek and Latin in elementary school to a nation that teaches remedial English in college.

    As a former college prof—whose sister and brother-in-law teach younger kids----I cringe every time I hear about yet another “solution” to our educational problems.

    The real solution is to return to basics—with additional efforts at technological knowledge—and stop trying to re-invent the wheel.

    To paraphrase the late, great Frank Zappa—conservatives in America act like intelligence is some sort of hideous deformity.
    And that is one of the main factors crippling education in America.

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