President Barack Obama’s victory on Tuesday gives him a chance to build on the education policies he has pushed since 2009 and ensures that the federal government’s role in education will not diminish over the next four years.
In his victory speech, he promised to expand “access to the best schools and best teachers” and spoke broadly about hope for America’s future, particularly for children, but did not offer specific policy ideas.
“It’s clear the Obama administration will continue to make education a priority,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political scientist at Teachers College, Columbia University. “It’s been a winner issue for them, even though teachers unions and some elements of the parent community are unhappy about some aspects.”
Obama steered the conversation to education whenever possible throughout the campaign – even during the final presidential debate focused on foreign policy. In particular, he touted his success in passing Race to the Top, a competitive grant program that incentivized 46 states to initiate education reforms. He also hinted about what his second-term priorities will be.
The need to invest more money in education, from early childcare to colleges and universities, was an overarching theme of the president’s campaign. Obama repeated several times that he wants to create two million slots in community colleges for job training and recruit 100,000 new math and science teachers.
“I want to build on what we’ve done with Race to the Top, but really focus on [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math],” he told the Des Moines Register on October 23rd. “And part of that is helping states to hire teachers with the highest standards and training in these subjects so we can start making sure that our kids are catching up to some of the other industrialized world [sic].”
Karen White, political director at the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teachers union, said she expects to see Obama focus on early education and college affordability during his second term.
Despite disagreeing with some of Obama’s central education policies, such as tying teacher evaluations to test scores, both the NEA and the other national teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, threw their support behind the president and urged members to volunteer for his campaign. While there may be lingering disagreements over specific reforms, White is confident that there will be cooperation between the unions and the White House.
“We’ve had a great relationship with the administration,” she said. “We don’t have any reason to believe that won’t happen going forward.”
Obama’s first term was focused on increasing accountability for teachers and principals based on how their students perform academically. Henig predicts that in the second term, the administration will look to improve how that academic performance is measured, including designing new assessments. This will undoubtedly be driven by competitive grants.
“Race to the Top represented, in my mind, not just an education program but a philosophy about how you wield influence from Washington, D.C.,” Henig said. “They’ll still use the money to leverage change because, I think, they think they made a bigger impact with that than [No Child Left Behind] did.”
While Obama has consistently sought a large influence for the White House in the country’s public schools, Mitt Romney spent the campaign arguing that education policies were best left to states and local school districts to decide. The stark contrast between Romney and Obama over the federal government’s role in education suggests the era of bipartisan agreement on education policy—begun a decade ago with the passage of No Child Left Behind—has waned, and that Obama may have less success with his education agenda in his second term.
In his first term, education was one of the few areas where Obama found some common ground with Republicans. He promoted traditionally Republican-supported ideas like charter schools and merit pay, for example. But he was also unable to pass a new version of the federal education act (known as No Child Left Behind under George W. Bush), which has been awaiting reauthorization since 2007, and Republicans blocked an Obama bill that would have reduced teacher layoffs.
“If you work your way through the rhetoric and fuzzy language on both sides … what appeared to be a new bipartisan approach to education à la No Child Left Behind is proving to be more easily unraveled than people expected,” Henig said. “It’ll be a lot harder to make non-incremental changes in education policy.”