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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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Arguing That Obama Is the Real Education Prez: President Obama and Education Reform

By Rick Hess — September 14, 2012 3 min read
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The Chicago teachers strike has put a fine point on the split over education reform in today’s Democratic Party. In Chi-town, we see a bastion of the Democratic coalition facing off against a Democratic mayor who used to be Obama’s chief of staff. Well, for a terrific explanation of how things got so tense, you’d do well to check out the new book President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political, penned by my AEI colleague Mike McShane and University of Arkansas professor Robert Maranto. (You can also find a terrific commentary on the Obama record and what it means for the fall in Mike’s new “Education Outlook,” released yesterday by my shop at AEI.)

Now, be forewarned; whereas I’m frequently of two minds on the President’s edu-efforts, McShane and Maranto are generally enthusiastic. At the same time, they bring a political scientist’s calculation in examining why Obama picked the fights he has and how he’s changed the education policy landscape. They pay particularly close attention to the “Nixon goes to China” impact of an African-American, Democratic president embracing charter schooling and teacher evaluation.

As Nat Glazer opined in a review of the book for Education Next, "[Maranto and McShane] appreciate that as a Democratic president Obama has had to act against the firmly held positions of major supporters of the Democratic Party, the teachers unions, but note that there are limits to how far he will go: yes to including data on effectiveness in teacher evaluations, no to providing private school vouchers for students in the District of Columbia. But Obama has certainly gone much further in the direction of reform than Hillary Clinton would have as president.” Glazer accurately credits the authors for “tak[ing] seriously the role and motivation of the president in making policy.”

I’ll highlight a couple of their key points here, but both the book and the Outlook are worth reading in full.

Obama deserves his due: Unlike Democrats before him, Obama has taken steps to challenge the “iron triangle” formed by intertwined relationships between teachers unions, elected officials, and bureaucrats. Drawing on a broad body of work in political science, Maranto and McShane note that it typically takes some kind of external “shock” to break these up--and that Obama’s reform efforts have provided just this kind of shock.

There are limitations to Obama’s policies:
While Obama and other reform Democrats have blurred partisan lines in supporting charter schools and challenging teachers unions, real partisan differences do exist on schooling. The difference between progressive and conservative reformers is made clear by the President’s rejection of school vouchers and efforts to narrow the scope of collective bargaining.

Obama’s strategy has emphasized morality instead of rationality: McShane and Maranto argue that Obama’s strategies (informed by his own experiences in schools and community organizing in Chicago) have emphasized the moral case for education reform, and that this has led Obama to adopt a relatively expansive view of the appropriate federal role in education. This, in turn, has made the administration more willing to embrace heavy-handed tactics, such as those employed when it comes to ESEA waivers, without necessarily placing sufficient regard on how such efforts will play out.

Obama used up his political capital early in the game: In pushing through health care reform early in his presidency, Obama may have opted to deploy the political capital he might otherwise have used to support more bipartisan measures like the reauthorization of ESEA. While the administration issued its ESEA blueprint early in the second year of Obama’s presidency, the proposal went nowhere.

What’s ahead: Maranto and McShane close by flagging four forces that are likely to reshape American public schools in the coming decade: tight budgets, individualized learning, advancing technology, and the emergence of new leaders. How Obama’s legacy impacts all of this remains to be seen, though it’ll rest in large part on whether the President is nearing the end of his tenure--or whether he’s about to embark on another four years.

Anyway, interesting stuff and well worth checking out.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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