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Rick Hess Straight Up

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.

Education Opinion

Five More Years: Of What Exactly?

By Rick Hess — January 30, 2012 2 min read
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Hidy all, I’m back. Lots of excitement while I was away, including the bizarre GOP primary season and the President’s SOTU speech.

For what it’s worth, I thought the SOTU’s seven-minute education section was embarrassing. The President could’ve said that NCLB waivers are a poor substitute for legislation, and signaled his eagerness to get a deal done. He could’ve said that dollars are tight and that states need to live up to their Race to the Top (RTT) promises or the feds will yank our money back. He could’ve echoed his Secretary of Education’s observation that we live in a “new normal,” where it’s less about spending more than it is about getting more bang from each buck. He could’ve been classy and congratulated governors for the bold reforms enacted last year in states like Indiana and Ohio.

Instead, he vapidly, vaguely gave marching orders to the states (raise the compulsory education age, spend more on K-12, reform teacher policies, spend more on higher ed) and to the colleges (keep your prices down, or else). Given that the states actually have their own elected executives, it seemed a little odd--as opposed to, you know, sketching what he’d like to see Washington do.

This all reminded me that Obama’s edu-reformism really should be graded on a curve. After all, spending nearly $800 billion on an unprecedented bender gave him a lot of juice. We spent north of $100 billion on education in the stimulus, of which the administration got Congress to divert around 5 percent into the President’s pet reforms (RTT, i3, and School Improvement Grants), and got fawning press. For all the accolades, the President’s agenda the past two years has been mostly running on the fumes of the ’09 stimulus. Absent that pile of fresh cash, the President has looked a whole lot less impressive (remember his baffling promise of a billion dollar K-12 bonus if Congress reauthorized NCLB by his target date?).

Forget the SOTU. What’s he going to do--when it comes to federal challenges like NCLB, streamlining federal edu-regs, the paper burdens of special ed, federal research, fixing “gainful employment,” rethinking federal aid for higher ed, or any of the other big challenges--without a wad of funny money to throw around?

This all matters, a lot, given what’s happening in the Republican primaries. Mitt Romney is getting banged around by an unpopular, undisciplined Newt Gingrich. Now, few Republican observers think Gingrich can actually win. (If Gingrich did somehow pull it off, and was free to spend the summer and fall hectoring and lecturing the American public, President Obama could well win forty states in November.) That said, the mere fact that the jury-rigged, cash-starved Gingrich campaign overtook Romney in South Carolina and could win Florida is bad news for Romney. If Romney can barely fend off Gingrich, what’s going to happen when Obama’s lavishly funded, seasoned campaign team sets to work?

Right now the Iowa electronic markets give the President about a 60 percent shot of winning reelection. If I had to bet, at this juncture, I think Obama’s chances are even better than that. There’s an excellent chance we’re looking at five more years. While the President’s dialed-back ambitions have been a nice change, especially given that we’re drowning in debt, it’d be nice to know that his game plan entails something besides platitudes and meaningless marching orders for the states.

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.