Obama, Duncan Get to Work on Agenda

By Alyson Klein — January 27, 2009 6 min read
President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address on the west front on the Capitol on Jan. 20.

As they settled into their new positions, President Barack Obama and newly minted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sought to set a tone of bipartisan cooperation on the myriad of challenges facing the nation and its schools.

Despite the faltering U.S. economy and the prospect of drastic cutbacks in school budgets across the nation, the education community in Washington is optimistic about the years ahead, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center for Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in the nation’s capital.

“The mood is very positive that the administration will start addressing some very pressing problems,” said Mr. Jennings, who served as a top aide to Democrats on the House education committee for nearly three decades.

Mr. Jennings said he is particularly encouraged about the significant role for education in a massive $825 billion stimulus package crafted by the new administration and House Democrats. (“Stimulus Bill Advanced by House Panel,” and “States Anxious to Get Details About Stimulus,” January 28, 2009.)

President Obama didn’t go into detail on education policy during his Jan. 20 inaugural address. But he made it clear that struggling schools are one of the key problems facing the nation.

“Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many,” Mr. Obama said in his address before a crowd of as many as 1.8 million people on the National Mall. “Everywhere we look, there is work to be done. ... We will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.”

The fact that schools made such an early appearance in the speech suggests that Mr. Obama sees education as a policy priority, said Paul Manna, a professor at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., who has studied the role of politics in education.

“It was headlined right at the beginning along with the economy and energy,” he said. Still, Mr. Manna acknowledged that the economy and health care, not the overdue reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, are the most pressing priorities for the new administration.

In the address, Mr. Obama emphasized themes of personal responsibility and public service.

“What is required of us now,” the president said, “is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”

Lines such as those show that the new president is keenly aware of the significant effort and cooperation needed to steady the faltering economy and cope with other urgent problems, Mr. Manna said.

“He strikes me as someone who realizes there’s a lot of work to do,” Mr. Manna said, “and he’s very serious about getting together to do it.”

Mr. Obama also echoed earlier calls he made during the campaign to thoroughly review government programs to make sure they are working effectively.

“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” the president said. “Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. Those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account—to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day—because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

Mr. Manna said that idea might have major implications for some smaller education programs. But he said it can be hard for the federal government to scrap programs once they are on the books, since they all have congressional supporters.

Collaborative Approach?

Mr. Duncan was confirmed by the Senate by voice vote on Inauguration Day, just hours after Mr. Obama took the oath of office. The 44-year-old former chief of the Chicago school district was sworn in, along with several other Cabinet members, the next day.

As of late last week, Mr. Duncan was settling into the Department of Education, and no announcements had come on any major sub-Cabinet positions.

Superintendents, academics, and others in the education policy world who descended on Washington to celebrate the inauguration, as well as the new secretary, emphasized the need for organizations and lawmakers all along the political spectrum to work collaboratively on the issues facing the nation’s schools. They particularly cited the achievement gaps between poor and minority students and their more advantaged peers.

Mr. Duncan had kind words for his Republican predecessor as education secretary, Margaret Spellings, when the two appeared together at a Jan. 19 event hosted by the Education Equality Project, which was founded by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and the Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York City-based civil rights activist. The coalition advocates a “no excuses” approach to education redesign.

There are schools across the nation that are doing an exemplary job of raising student achievement, Mr. Duncan said, adding: “Our challenge is to take those pockets of excellence and make that the norm, rather than the exception.”

The sometimes-pugnacious Mr. Klein struck a conciliatory note during a reception Jan. 18 in honor of Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford University education professor who headed Mr. Obama’s transition team on education.

“They say there’s one camp here and another camp here,” Mr. Klein said, referring to a perceived split in the Democratic Party on education issues that is seen as pitting some civil rights activists and urban school reformers against teachers’ unions and advocates of stronger social support for children. “Well, let me tell you, in education sometimes people don’t even agree with what they [themselves] are saying,” he said.

Ms. Darling-Hammond, who has called for increased investment in teacher training and is viewed by some observers as closely aligned with the unions, said she agreed with Mr. Klein’s assessment.

“All of us talk to each other” after stories on such a split appear in the press, she said, downplaying any permanent rift.

Bipartisan cooperation was a major theme of the Education Equality Project pre-inauguration event.

Mr. Klein and Mr. Sharpton, both Democrats, were headliners, but it featured appearances by such prominent Republican figures as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, President Obama’s opponent in the general election, and Ms. Spellings.

McCain Seeks Unity

“Friends, this issue must unite us,” Sen. McCain told the crowd gathered at Washington’s Cardozo High School, many of whom were wearing Obama buttons. “This issue is the uniting factor that should drive us in the 21st century and in the next four years. We must join together.”

Still, many speakers, including Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, N.J., referred to what they said was a need to stand up to special interests within the Democratic Party, an apparent reference to the unions.

“I’m in the mood for a movement in America. I feel it spreading from coast to coast, from north to south, from people who say, ‘No excuses,’” Mr. Booker said. “As a Democrat, we have not always been right on education. As a Democrat, there are forces in our party that sometimes pull us the wrong way on education. ... I am no longer concerned with right and left. I just want to go forward.”

Staff Writer Stephen Sawchuk contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as Obama, Duncan Get to Work on Agenda


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