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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.

Education Opinion

The Obama Education Legacy

By Rick Hess — October 08, 2015 3 min read
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Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced his resignation. With Congress controlled by the Republicans and the administration having run out of stimulus cash, played its “waiver” card, and been rebuffed on plans to use its college scorecard to impose NCLB for higher ed, things are winding down. Things could still happen— most significantly ESEA reauthorization— but we’re getting close to the time when Department of Ed staff will be on caretaker status. That makes this a propitious moment, especially as the campaign for 2016 begins in earnest, to examine the Obama education legacy.

The most recent issue of the quarterly National Affairs contains an extended essay offering my own take. It begins,

President Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009 with great hope and promise. Education reform, in particular, seemed set to benefit. Candidate Obama had made a point of using education to illustrate that he was championing “investment” rather than mere government “spending” and was eager to find bipartisan solutions. The education landscape seemed ready for that kind of leadership. As Jeb Bush declared in 2009, “I’m excited. . . because I think for the first time in my political life, there seems to be more consensus than disagreement across the ideological spectrum about education reform.”

Arne Duncan, Obama’s choice for secretary of education, drew widespread praise. At Duncan’s confirmation hearing, Republican senator (and former secretary of education) Lamar Alexander said, “President-elect Obama has made several distinguished Cabinet appointments. From my view of it all, I think you are the best.” And influential Republicans endorsed Obama’s early efforts. In a telling example, Newt Gingrich joined Duncan and Al Sharpton in 2009 on a multi-city school tour to support Obama’s education agenda and lend it a bipartisan gloss.

Some of Obama’s early moves suggested he would indeed be a “post-partisan” education reformer. His appointees to the Department of Education were a talented bunch, drawing heavily from the “reform” wing of the Democratic Party and reaching beyond the Beltway bubble. He did things that aren’t easy for a Democrat on the national stage to do: He advocated charter schools, tussled with the teacher unions, and went after the schools of education. The administration sporadically tried to reduce the paper burden on school districts, had a secretary of education who (for a brief time) said schools needed to find ways to do more with less, and enjoyed some admirable success in increasing the role of evidence in making education funding decisions.

Obama also made powerful use of his own background to challenge America to do right by vulnerable children— and to challenge those children and their parents to do their part. He insisted that, when it comes to helping “boys and young men of color who are having a particularly tough time...government cannot play the only— or even the primary— role.” He said, “We can help give every child access to quality preschool. . . but we can’t replace the power of a parent who’s reading to that child. We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias, but nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.”

Despite the soaring rhetoric and heady promises, however, education reform during Obama’s tenure has disappointed in practice. Oddly enough, some of the president’s critics on the right have missed this and have maintained that, on education, his policy has been uniquely sound. New York Times columnist David Brooks declared that “Obama has been the most determined education reformer in the modern presidency,” and suggested that Obama’s approach to education reform constituted a model for “health care, transportation, energy [and] environmental policy.”

In fact, Obama’s presidency has proven deeply divisive in nearly every area of policy, from health care to government spending to the environment. And those who have been disconcerted by the Obama administration’s faults in other areas— its abuse of executive discretion, its dramatic expansion of the federal government, and its exacerbation of identity politics and the culture wars— will find that education has not been spared. Despite all the promises of a “post-partisan” presidency, Obama has pursued a polarizing, bureaucratized, and Washington-centric education agenda while exploiting and then draining a substantial reservoir of bipartisan goodwill.

If you’re so inclined, you can find the whole thing here.

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.