The Obama administration’s first-term education reforms have received a good deal of acclaim—and criticism—from both the Right and the Left. The Race to the Top program and the more-controversial waiver plans have encouraged reforms in accountability and choice, while simultaneously spurring interventions in low-performing schools. Now that the election is over, what can we expect in education policy during a second Obama term?
AEI’s team of education experts tackles that question in their just-released Education Policy Outlook. They see three key trends that will heavily influence the policy debate going forward.
1. A decline in federal funding. Because most education reforms during the first term were funded by the stimulus bill, the Department of Education will have less to work with going forward. This will force the administration to alter its focus from drafting dramatic new reforms in the second term to managing the implementation of the reforms from the first term.
2. A split within the Republican Party. The GOP is divided over support for the Common Core Standards Initiative, a set of academic content standards adopted by 46 states. Initially, it was a state-level process and hence received Republican support, but since its adoption by the Obama administration as a criterion for Race to the Top funds, many Republicans have begun to oppose it. Some have even called the Initiative “Obamacore.” This conflict within the GOP spells trouble for an effective conservative message on education.
3. The wavering, but still powerful, teachers unions. The elections showed that teachers unions are down but far from out. Voters provided the unions with a mixed bag in state-level contests across America. As the Education Outlook states, “Although teachers unions had some big wins, they did lose some battles. But, more important, these battles are increasingly over issues unions have not had to contest in the past.”
The paper notes that we are unlikely to see any major federal efforts in K-12 education due to the combination of declining funding and the fact that Congress is likely to be consumed with budgetary and health care issues for the foreseeable future. This means that lawmakers are unlikely to get around to reauthorizing several key education laws, most prominently the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
If Congress does act in education, it will be at the postsecondary level, where it will likely address the bleeding in the Pell grant program and reform the gainful-employment regulations on federal financial aid released in 2011 by the Department of Education.
Due to these constraints, it is almost certain that the Department of Education will be primarily focused on implementing the reforms from the first term, and managing any potential pushback from either the Right or the Left, rather than instituting new ideas. Thankfully, popular Education Secretary Arne Duncan is staying at his post, and will see through what he started.
America’s education policy therefore looks to be entering a period of consolidation and implementation rather than experimentation. And given that both of the last two administrations have initiated major federal education reforms—to varying degrees of success—that may be for the best.