Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What Has President Obama Done? Personal Experiences and Political Restraint Have Influenced Obama's Record in Education. A Second Term Would Continue to Focus on Expanding Opportunities for Access to High-Quality Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What Has President Obama Done? Personal Experiences and Political Restraint Have Influenced Obama's Record in Education. A Second Term Would Continue to Focus on Expanding Opportunities for Access to High-Quality Education

Article excerpt

Like many leaders from modest backgrounds, Barack Obama credits his education for setting him on a path to success. "I'm standing here as President because of the education that I received," he declared in a June 2011 commencement speech at a Tennessee high school. In a 2009 discussion with Virginia high school freshmen, he emphasized that both he and his wife Michelle "were able to succeed not because of who our parents were, not because we came from a lot of wealth or because we had a lot of connections, but ... because we ended up getting into good schools, and we worked hard, and we did well."

Amid a climate of scarce resources and even scarcer political goodwill, President Obama has taken active steps to provide all children with the kinds of educational opportunities that helped him get ahead. At the elementary and secondary levels, his executive and legislative actions have helped schools and teachers weather the recession; promoted reforms centered on rigorous standards and assessments, teacher quality, and improvement of low-performing school; and allows states to develop alternatives to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability. In higher education, his reforms of college loan, grant, and tax-credit programs have helped families cope with rising college costs.

Obama racked up these accomplishments at a time when he was focused on ending two major wars, keeping the economy from falling into a depression, and overseeing the most comprehensive overhaul of health care in the nation's history.

To appreciate the meaning of Obama's accomplishments, one must first recognize how the current political context has constrained his ability to put in place new policies in education and most other areas.

Political context

For nearly 50 years, most major federal education laws were enacted with bipartisan support. The products of this cooperation included, among others, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 signed by President Eisenhower, the Stafford college loan program named for a strong Republican supporter of federal education aid, and NCLB enacted with the support of conservatives like John Boehner and liberals like Ted Kennedy.

Unfortunately, the tradition of bipartisan support for federal aid to education has withered. Despite some piecemeal support from Republicans for expanding charter schools and instituting test-based evaluations of teachers, Obama has received little cooperation from congressional Republicans in enacting his broader legislative agenda for education.

To the contrary, Republicans in Congress remain determined to stop Obama from winning any major legislative victories that could aid in his reelection. "The single most important thing that we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," observed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a 2010 National Journal article. Pressure from the Tea Party and other conservative elements of the Republican coalition has reinforced that intransigence and stalled legislation not only in education, but also in such areas as immigration reform, environmental controls, and job creation.

This partisan climate has made it difficult for President Obama to move key education-related legislation through Congress. His economic stimulus package, which included a large pot of money to save educators' jobs, passed the House with no Republican votes in support and faced a filibuster in the Senate. It was only by agreeing to reduce the bill's funding that Obama and the Democrats obtained the three Republican votes necessary to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Moreover, Obama's efforts to find compromise on legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have been unsuccessful, even though many changes to this law made by NCLB remain unpopular with Republicans and Democrats and are considered unworkable by most educators. …

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