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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 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."

Congressional hurdles

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."

Part of the problem, however, is that even while many agree the law should be overhauled, it's hard to imagine Congress reaching a deal on exactly how to do that -- particularly given that Republicans and Democrats are on opposite sides of the spectrum with regard to what should be federally regulated and what should be left to the states.

"I think there's broad consensus the law needs to be rewritten, and I think there's a broad consensus about the problems with the law," said Joel Packer, executive director for the Committee for Education Funding. "It would clearly be better if Congress rewrote the law... but to be honest, it's hard to see how Congress in 2013 is going to resolve the existing ideological differences because it's largely the same players as the Congress in 2012." In the 2012 congressional session, both the House and Senate attempted to pass reauthorization bills; both sides failed.

Plus, for the White House, there's an advantage to working outside the system: Unlike with whatever bill would be likely to pass through a bitterly divided Congress, the waiver program allows the administration to implement an agenda without bowing to Republican compromises.

"I think the administration has a pretty good arrangement right now: They're able to move their legislative priorities through the waiver process," said Ellerson.

Beyond the reauthorization of the ESEA are perhaps even more daunting tasks for Congress, according to Packer: The Higher Education Act (HEA), which has yet to be reviewed extensively by Congress, is also due for reauthorization in 2013. Because Congress hasn't spent as much time parsing it as it has the ESEA, Packer says that even if people agree "what the issues are" with regard to higher education reforms, lawmakers haven't necessarily wrapped their head around the politics surrounding those issues, or defined the partisan lines that will accompany them. At the same time, Congress will be forced to grapple with the fact that the Pell Grant program faces a financial shortfall of several billion dollars, and a short-term extension on a bill to keep student loan interest rates low is also set to expire. Meantime, because the Department of Education is now essentially overseeing the Race to the Top grants and NCLB waivers, it will have an enormous amount of administrative oversight to deal with in the coming year.

"I don't really see major changes in what they're proposing," said Packer, of the Obama team's second-term education priorities. "I think you'll see them continuing to push."

Threat of the "fiscal cliff"

In addition to the across-the-board budget cuts with which many school district have been saddled in light of the recession, as well as state and national attempts to reduce budget deficits via cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, educators say impending sequester cuts tied to the so-called fiscal cliff slated to go into effect in 2013 pose another looming nightmare: If enacted, those cuts would reduce the federal budget for education and Head Start programs by between eight and nine percent -- or between $4.5 and $4.8 billion, according to the AASA. And while school districts have been able to somewhat blunt the impact of prior cuts, Ellerson argues that the sequester cuts would directly impact student learning.

When the recession first started, she says, schools implemented cuts strategically, reducing the number of field trips, custodial services, after-school activities, and consumables. Now, according to a July study she authored for the AASA, most state and local districts' so-called "rainy day funds" are drained, and nine in ten administrators surveyed for the study say their districts will no longer able to absorb the impending cuts.

"The cuts of sequestration will translate into reductions in and eliminations to personnel, curriculum, facilities and operations," according to the study, which surveyed more than a thousand school administrators in 49 states. Of those respondents, nearly 70 percent of said the cuts would result in limits to professional development, 58.1 percent cited a reduction in academic programs, 56.6 percent said it would lead to personnel eliminations, and 54.9 percent pointed to bigger class sizes.

"Even though there is some semblance of economic stability starting to take hold [nationwide], schools are still operating at that inner circle," she said. "Budget cuts are moving increasingly closer to the core of the mission, which is educating students."

Beyond the K-12 level, Packer also notes that many universities' would lose research funding, which would limit the quality and quantity of professors and graduate fellowships. On the community level, it would likely impact job training programs, as well as tutoring, counseling and mentoring initiatives.

"The bottom line is no one is safe," he said.

Even if the so-called "fiscal cliff" is averted, schools could be dramatically affected if the deficit reductions come from disproportionate cuts to non-defense discretionary funding.

"I do think nobody wants to go over the fiscal cliff," said Ellerson. "I think they'll get a blended approach. But the question is, how blended? Education did not drive this nation's debt and deficit. If the final proposal is so heavily reliant on just non-defense discretionary spending cuts, that's shortsighted policy. And it's also a very, very serious signal to educators: That you need to do even more with even less."

President Obama has been firm in insisting on a balanced approach to reducing the nation's deficit, and has maintained that schools shouldn't have to suffer from budget cuts when the country's wealthiest earners continue to benefit from tax cuts. Plus, his own legacy with regard to education could take a serious hit if the sequester cuts go into effect: The allocation of new Race to the Top grants could be suspended, and states with NCLB waivers would inevitably struggle to keep up with their pledges.

"It's time for Congress to work this stuff out," said Packer. "Both to protect these programs from these senseless cuts and to figure out policy going forward."

In his remarks last week, Duncan shed no light on how the Department of Education's plan to deal with the sequester cuts if implemented -- but he expressed some optimism about the president's mandate with regard to education.

"I'm sure many of you are also wondering about the fiscal cliff and the threat of sequestration. I am, too. I don't know what kind of budget and tax compromise will emerge," he said. "But I am greatly encouraged by the results of the election. Not just because President Obama was re-elected, but because we saw voters affirm the view that education is an investment in the future of our nation and our children--and is not just an expense to be cut in tough times."

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