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Published in Print: November 12, 2008, as Obama Gets to Work on Transition

Obama Gets to Work on Transition

Sweeping Triumph May Lift Democrat's Agenda

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President-elect Barack Obama and his team started work this week on a transition that includes searching for the people who will bring to life his agenda of expanding preschool, improving the quality of teachers, and fixing the major federal law in K-12 education.

Within 24 hours of his election, the Illinois Democrat assigned a team of campaign advisers and staff members the task of hiring political hands and policy experts to lead the incoming administration’s efforts and to develop a plan to turn campaign ideas into reality.

Mr. Obama, who defeated Sen. John McCain of Arizona in a hard-fought campaign that concluded Nov. 4, has promised to add $10 billion a year to federal preschool spending, “recruit an army of new teachers,” double federal funding for charter schools, and provide scholarships to college students and to professionals from other fields who agree to pursue careers in teaching.

President-elect Barack Obama waves to his supporters after delivering his victory speech at his election night party at Grant Park in Chicago on Nov. 4.
President-elect Barack Obama waves to his supporters after delivering his victory speech at his election night party at Grant Park in Chicago on Nov. 4.
—Photo by David Guttenfelder/AP

The president-elect also has said he would work to improve the No Child Left Behind Act, building on the law’s accountability measures designed to improve student achievement.

With budget pressures driven by deep troubles in the financial markets and in the broader U.S. economy, the Obama administration may have difficulty generating public support for the campaign’s ambitious education agenda and the spending that would be required for the programs in it.

But Mr. Obama said in the final month of the campaign that he considers education an important ingredient for addressing the country’s long-term economic problems. In the Oct. 8 presidential debate, he rated education as a priority on a par with expanding access to health care, reforming entitlement programs, and developing new forms of energy.

“We’ve got to deal with education so that our young people are competitive in a global economy,” Mr. Obama said in that second debate with Sen. McCain, held in Nashville, Tenn. The Democrat made a similar statement in an interview with CNN shortly before the election.

Campaign Proposals

President-elect Obama sent forth an ambitious education agenda on the campaign trail:

No Child Left Behind

Would increase the amount of funding for the overall program and particularly to improve the quality of tests so they measure higher-order thinking skills. In a September speech, Mr. Obama said that “the goals of this law were the right ones.” But he added that the law has been inadequately funded and has focused too narrowly on the results of standardized tests.

Teacher Quality

Promises to “recruit, prepare, retain, and reward” teachers, according to his campaign Web site. Mr. Obama would establish scholarships to pay for the undergraduate, graduate, or alternative certification of teachers. He would start a residency program to recruit 30,000 new teachers through an intensive process that combines coursework with working closely with a current teacher. He also would finance programs to pay bonuses to teachers who act as mentors or work in hard-to-staff schools in urban or rural areas.

Federal Spending

Has proposed $18 billion in new spending on preschool and K-12 programs, including a new teacher-training initiative and $10 billion in new money to help states develop preschool programs.

School Choice

Supports public school choice, but is opposed to federally financed vouchers for use at private schools. Mr. Obama proposes to double federal funding for charter schools, to about $400 million per year.

Prekindergarten

Would spend the additional $10 billion a year in preschool funding to expand Early Head Start and for such programs as grants to help states establish health and education programs for pregnant women and for children from birth to age 5.

Higher Education

Has proposed a new, $4,000 “American Opportunity Tax Credit.” Students receiving the credit would be required to perform 100 hours of community service. The president-elect also promises to simplify the process of applying for federal financial aid.

Assembling a Team

Interest in the prospects of the president-elect’s education agenda took a back seat this week to the speculation over whom the Illinois senator would select to lead his education team.

Even before Mr. Obama announced the members of his transition team, newspapers and blogs were mentioning candidates to be the next U.S. secretary of education.

The day before the election, Politico, a Washington-based newspaper and online publication focused on national politics, reported that retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell would be a candidate to be the education secretary.

Mr. Powell, who was secretary of state during President Bush’s first term, made a high-profile endorsement of Mr. Obama late in the campaign. Since he left public office in 2005, Mr. Powell and his wife, Alma, have started the America’s Promise Alliance, a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the high school dropout rate and addressing other social issues. ("Dropout Campaigns Envisioned for States, 50 Key City Districts," April 9, 2008.)

The day after the election, Mr. Powell told The Wall Street Journal that he isn’t seeking a post in the Obama administration.

Other possibilities being mentioned for heading the Department of Education include current and former governors (Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Gov. Michael F. Easley of North Carolina, and his predecessor, James B. Hunt Jr.); urban school district leaders (Joel I. Klein of New York City and Arne Duncan of Chicago); and prominent Obama campaign advisers on education (Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond and Jonathan H. Schnur, the chief executive officer of the nonprofit group New Leaders for New Schools).

But the transition team hasn’t begun serious deliberations about the education post, according to sources who have talked to the campaign. The team, which includes important education advisers to the campaign, will focus first on reviewing the inner workings of every Cabinet department and on filling the top posts at the departments of State, Defense, the Treasury, and Justice.

After such a review of the Education Department, the list of potential secretaries will narrow. Any candidate could be picked in part to help balance the political, racial, geographic, and gender makeup of the Cabinet, the sources said.

That may mean a candidate could emerge who isn’t on the current list of contenders.

For example, longtime Atlanta schools Superintendent Beverly L. Hall, whose name hasn’t been mentioned prominently, could be a choice who appeals to Democrats across the policy spectrum, according to sources who are in touch with campaign officials and other influential Democrats trying to influence the transition. ("Atlanta’s Own ‘Hall’ Of Famer," this issue.)

Ambitious Agenda

President-elect Obama’s appointees to top education posts will be working from a campaign agenda that provides a broad outline of how to address pre-K-12 issues, primarily the expansion of preschool programs, the improvement of teacher quality, and the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law.

The team also will be working closely with congressional Democrats, who added to their majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives in the Nov. 4 elections. ("More ‘Blue’ Congress to Tackle Education," this issue.)

During the campaign, Mr. Obama never explained which of his education proposals would take priority during his administration. Some of the issues in his education platform—most prominently, teacher quality—could be addressed as part of the overdue renewal of the NCLB law, the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

But others may move through Congress as separate bills. The expansion of prekindergarten programs, for instance, could stand alone because such an effort is likely to generate bipartisan support and would avoid some of the controversies related to testing, accountability, and teacher quality that will make the NCLB law’s reauthorization difficult.

“Obama talked a lot about pre-K legislation in the campaign,” said Vic Klatt, a former aide to House Republicans and now a Washington lobbyist for colleges and education organizations. “It’s relatively easy, relatively bipartisan. If I were in their shoes, I’d lead with something like that.”

Initiatives related to teacher quality and teacher pay, by contrast, may not be bipartisan or easy to accomplish.

As part of Mr. Obama’s proposals to improve the quality of teaching, he would offer scholarships to college students and midcareer professionals to pay for the costs of undergraduate and graduate studies that would prepare them to enter jobs in the classroom. The president-elect also would create residency and mentoring programs to help beginning teachers, particularly those who work in schools with the most challenging learning environments.

The most significant—and perhaps most controversial—section of his education plan is to underwrite federal efforts to experiment with teacher pay plans that deviate from traditional salary scales, which set teachers’ pay based on their years of experience and levels of educational achievement.

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—both of which are significant power brokers in the Democratic Party—support affiliates that choose to experiment with teacher compensation. But neither would endorse proposals that link a teacher’s salary or bonuses to the achievement of his or her students.

Throughout his almost two-year campaign for the presidency, Mr. Obama mentioned his support for the idea of performance-based pay for teachers. But the candidate said repeatedly that new pay plans needed to be negotiated with teachers—a statement that helped him earn the endorsement of both the 3.2 million-member NEA and the 1.3 million-member AFT in the general election. During the primaries, the AFT supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Mr. Obama’s chief rival, while the NEA remained neutral.

But several times in recent months, surrogates for Mr. Obama’s campaign discussed such pay-for-performance plans with various levels of enthusiasm. Ms. Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford’s college of education, did so reluctantly in several public appearances, while Mr. Schnur, who was an adviser to then-Vice President Al Gore, and others spoke about the importance of such experiments.

NCLB in Play

The debate over teacher pay and many other pieces of the new president’s education agenda most likely will happen within the context of deciding the future of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The nearly 7-year-old law, which will be a prominent part of President Bush’s domestic-policy legacy, was due for reauthorization in 2007, but the process stalled. The law’s critics, who span the political spectrum, say it requires states to do too much testing and to make accountability decisions based primarily on the results of those tests.

The law requires states to assess students annually in grades 3-8, and once in high school, in reading and mathematics. Its accountability measures kick in for schools and districts that are not on pace to meet the law’s goal that all students be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

President-elect Obama said during the campaign that he supports the NCLB law’s goals, particularly the one to narrow gaps in achievement between minority and white students. He said that he believes the law hasn’t received enough federal money, and that he would work to improve the quality of tests used under the law so that they measure higher-order thinking skills.

While the debate over the law’s future certainly will address testing and accountability, it also will include a serious debate over experimenting with teacher pay.

When the House Education and Labor Committee proposed a draft reauthorization bill last year, the NEA and the AFT objected to a new grant program that would offer federal money to school districts experimenting with new ways of paying teachers, including plans linking teacher bonuses to the performance of students.

The unions’ objections were a significant reason why the draft bill never advanced through the legislative process. ("NEA Leads Opposition to Law’s Renewal," Nov. 14, 2007.)

Judging by Mr. Obama’s legislative and campaign proposals, he is among Democrats who would challenge the unions to accept teacher pay plans that stray further from traditional compensation systems in the field. Among the other Democrats who have endorsed such positions are Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who are the chairmen, respectively, of the House and Senate education committees.

The challenge for the president-elect’s transition team will be to hire people who represent different factions on teacher pay and other issues while still also being unified behind Mr. Obama and his ideas.

“I think these things will be worked out,” said Cynthia G. Brown, the director of education policy for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a Washington-based think tank with ties to Mr. Obama and other prominent Democrats. “I don’t think people will be pitted against each other.”

People who accept high-level government positions in Washington are aware that they need to speak on behalf of the president and need to set aside their personal views.

“Suddenly, you’re not your own person; you’re the president’s person,” said James W. Kohlmoos, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, a Washington-based group representing the education research-and-development industry.

“A lot of people aren’t used to doing that,” said Mr. Kohlmoos, who served as a political appointee in the Department of Education under President Clinton. “People have to come in and understand they’re working for the president now.”

Right Fit

Another important factor in personnel decisions is attracting people with the right set of skills for their jobs.

Three of the eight people who have served as secretary of education since the Education Department’s creation in 1980 had previously been high-level state officials: Terrel H. Bell, who had been the chief executive officer of Utah’s board of regents; Lamar Alexander, a former governor of Tennessee; and Richard W. Riley, a former governor of South Carolina.

Governors, in particular, have been successful in the Education Department post because they know how to walk the fine line between the roles that the federal government and the states play in education, Mr. Kohlmoos said.

“You need the good political instincts in that job because of the complex nature of the federal role,” he said.

People who have dedicated their careers to research and policy haven’t developed such skills, other observers suggested, and would probably be better suited for policy positions below the Cabinet level.

Ms. Darling-Hammond and Mr. Schnur, for example, both have significant experience developing policy, but neither has held a high-level political or policymaking position.

Jobs below the cabinet level include deputy secretary of education, undersecretary, assistant secretary, and counselor to the secretary—a position that gives the holder a broad portfolio that spans across the Education Department, said Patrick R. Riccards, a former aide to congressional Democrats and the founder of Exemplar Strategic Communications, a public relations firm based in Falls Church, Va.

But jobs in the department aren’t always the most important ones directing a president’s education agenda, Mr. Riccards said.

“In the first four years of the Bush administration,” he said, “education policy was being run by Margaret Spellings at the [White House], not by the secretary of education.”

Ms. Spellings went from the post of domestic-policy adviser to education secretary, succeeding Rod Paige, a former superintendent of schools in Houston.

Vol. 28, Issue 12, Pages 1,24-25

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