Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, whose campaign platform laid out an expansive agenda for pre-K-12 education, will have the chance to fulfill those promises when he takes office Jan. 20 as the 44th president of the United States.
The Democratic candidate, who defeated Sen. John McCain of Arizona in a hard-fought campaign that concluded Nov. 4, said he would expand federal preschool programs, “recruit an army of new teachers,” and provide scholarships to college students and to professionals from other fields who promise to pursue careers in teaching. The president-elect also has said he would work to change the No Child Left Behind Act, building on the federal law’s accountability measures designed to improve student achievement, and would double federal funding for charter schools.
But with budget pressures driven by deep troubles in the financial markets and in the broader economy, the Obama administration may have difficulty generating public support for the campaign’s ambitious education agenda and the spending needed for the programs in it.
The president-elect alluded to those problems in a speech shortly after Sen. McCain called him to concede the election.
“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term,” said Mr. Obama at a rally in Chicago’s Grant Park.
But Mr. Obama said in the past month 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 Mr. McCain, held in Nashville, Tenn. He made a similar statement in an interview with CNN shortly before the election.
Expanding Federal Role
President-elect Obama campaigned on a wide-ranging education platform that would expand the federal role in preschool and in teacher recruitment, retention, and compensation, in particular.
His platform proposed to spend $10 billion a year to create grants to help states offer universal preschool and expand existing programs such as Head Start and Early Head Start.
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 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.
Mr. Obama and his education advisers said throughout his two-year campaign for the presidency that an Obama administration would support efforts to link a portion of teachers’ pay to the achievement gains of their students.
He has said that such pay experiments would need to be negotiated with teachers. That could be hard to do, given teacher unions’ opposition to pay plans that differ from the traditional pay system. Despite disagreement on that issue, both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers endorsed Mr. Obama for president.
Growing Democratic Majority
To enact his education agenda, Mr. Obama will be working with a Democratic majority in Congress than is larger than the current one.
In the House, Democrats will gain at least 18 seats with the outcome of at least one race still unclear, according to the Associated Press. The House had 235 Democrats and 199 Republicans going into the election, with one vacancy.
After last night’s election, the Senate will have at least 54 Democrats plus two independents who currently caucus with the party. The outcome of races in four states was still unclear, according to the AP. The Senate now has 49 Democrats and the two independents.
The top education issue facing the president-elect and Congress is the renewal of the NCLB law.
Now that the Democrats control both the executive and legislative branches, they will have to reconcile differences within their party on education in order to get a reauthorized version of the NCLB law, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization.
He said Democrats would be looking to the new Obama administration to set priorities for the law. Republicans, particularly in the House, are likely to become more conservative and seek a reduced role for the federal government in education, he said.
“I’m confident that [Democrats] will resolve the differences among themselves,” said Mr. Jennings, who served as an aide to Democrats on the House education panel from 1967 to 1994. “I don’t think there will be deep divisions because of the moment, because of the political demands of the time. … Democrats have been out of power for so long they understand that they have their chance now. It isn’t a permanent chance, they could lose it, [the] moment means they have to govern correctly.”
The nearly 7-year-old law, which is one of President Bush’s most important domestic accomplishments, is overdue for reauthorization. Its critics, who span the political spectrum, say it requires states to do too much testing and make accountability decisions based primarily on the results of those tests.
The law requires states to assess students in grades 3-8, and once in high school, in reading and mathematics. The law’s 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 supported the NCLB law’s goals, particularly the one to narrow gaps in achievement between minority and white students. He said he believes that the law hasn’t received enough federal money, and that he would work to improve the quality of tests used under the law so they measure higher-order thinking skills.
“We also have to fix the broken promises of No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Obama said in a Sept. 9 speech in Riverside, Ohio. Among the problems with the law, he said, are inadequate funding and lack of support for schools failing to make its achievement goals.
But, Mr. Obama added, “I believe that the goals of this law were the right ones.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Obama Elected 44th President