Obama's 2nd term to test his education program
President Obama has already begun to sketch the outlines of an ambitious second-term agenda, touting his mandate on tax rates and making comprehensive immigration reform a top legislative priority. But when it comes to education reform, looming battles over politics and funding threaten to leave students and educators nationwide in the lurch - and could derail the president's legacy on an issue he's long touted as paramount to his vision for governing.
The Department of Education declined to comment to CBSNews.com on the administration's second-term agenda for education, but in remarks last week to the Council of Chief State School Officers, Education Secretary Arne Duncan signaled a broad commitment to building upon the administration's previous efforts in the coming years.
"Our basic theory of action is not going to change," Duncan said, according to his prepared remarks. "The real work of improving schools doesn't happen in Washington. Our job, in a second term, is to support the bold and transformational reforms at the state and local level that so many of you have pursued during the last four years."
Chief among those reforms include the administration's Race to the Top program, a $4.35 billion competition designed to spur innovation and reforms in state and local K-12 education, and waivers exempting states from the controversial "No Child Left Behind" law, which Congress has yet to reauthorize. The president has also pledged to hire 100,000 new teachers, and the Department of Education has pushed programs like "Investing in Education" and "Promise Neighborhoods," which emphasize cradle-to-career educational programs and push schools and non-profit organizations to seek new solutions to longstanding challenges in education.
"We will continue to provide incentives and support for states and districts to engage in systematic change and expand their capacity to boost student achievement and close opportunity gaps," Duncan said last week. "We're going to continue to provide incentives and support for states and districts to strengthen the teaching profession, develop useful systems of teacher and principal evaluation, and recruit world-class talent to our schools."
Given the myriad challenges currently facing the educational community, not everyone believes the Obama administration's two hallmark programs -- Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers -- should necessarily be the top priorities going into the new year. Noelle Ellerson, assistant director of Policy Analysis & Advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators (AASE), believes the administration should be focusing its limited funds on investments into federal flagship formula programs like Title I - which aims to improve academic achievement among disadvantaged kids - and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), rather than funneling already limited resources into competitive programs that will inevitably designate some schools "losers."
"When it comes to competitive funding as a federal educational funding policy, we have a concern there. Because allocating new money to competitions like these creates an environment of winners and losers," said Ellerson. "We would be much more willing to have a conversation about [programs like Race to the Top] if the missions of Title 1 and IDEA had been met." But since they haven't, she says, "it puts the cart before the horse. Because not all students are starting from the same spot."
Ellerson, like many education advocates, also believes that reauthorizing and reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which in its current iteration exists as No Child Left Behind, should be prioritized over awarding temporary waivers exempting states from an existing, if problematic, piece of legislation. After all, only 34 states plus the District of Columbia have received such waivers -- meaning that 16 states are, in Ellerson's view, "still operating under this broken law."
"Either their state applied and they were denied [a waiver] or their state did not pursue it," she said. "They have no relief."
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