Education Funding

Obama Using Education Issue as Political Sword

By Michele McNeil — October 27, 2011 4 min read
President Barack Obama holds a child and greets the crowd after speaking about managing student debt during an event at the University of Colorado Denver Downtown Campus in Denver on Oct. 26. Denver is the final stop on a three-day trip to the West Coast for fundraising and speeches promoting his American Jobs Act.

With President Barack Obama’s jobs plan stalled in Congress and his re-election bid saddled by low approval numbers and high unemployment, his administration is using its record on education—and that of congressional Republicans—as a political weapon as Campaign 2012 heats up.

The Senate late last month rejected a $35 billion piece of a $447 billion package the administration said would save an estimated 400,000 teacher jobs. Yet, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his top officials used speeches in a number of states to emphasize how many education jobs they say are at stake there: 12,000 in Michigan, 14,500 in Illinois, 5,100 in Utah.

Meanwhile, President Obama is playing up the deadlock in Congress and rolling out education initiatives his administration can do on its own. Prime examples: The waiver plan unveiled in September to grant states flexibility on key requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, and a plan announced last week to give relief to debt-burdened student-loan borrowers.

“We can’t wait for Congress to do its job. ... [W]e couldn’t just wait for Congress to fix No Child Left Behind. We went ahead and decided, let’s give states the flexibility they need to meet higher standards for our kids and improve our schools,” Mr. Obama said in an Oct. 26 speech at the University of Colorado Denver.

And, turning to a new proposal that will help cap student-loan payments and make it easier to consolidate some federal loans, he said: “We’re going to put them into effect not three years from now, not two years from now—we’re going to put them into effect next year, because our economy needs it right now.”

Political Volley

The student-loan debt issue is the latest political volley in a furious back-and-forth between the president and Republicans, who are trying to blame each other for the poor economy with high unemployment and sluggish growth forecasted to continue well into the general-election season next year.

In September, Mr. Obama unveiled the American Jobs Act as a comprehensive package to help jump-start the economy by spending money on teacher jobs and infrastructure, including $25 billion to modernize K-12 schools.

But since then, Congress has been picking it apart and shooting it down, bit by bit.

The failure of the $35 billion proposal to help secure the jobs of teachers, police, and firefighters sparked widespread criticism from national and local teachers’ unions. They used the 50-50 vote, which was 10 votes shy of the 60 needed to break a filibuster in the Senate, to criticize senators who nixed the plan, including Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown.

“Today is a day that Scott Brown’s vote is going to negatively impact Massachusetts families and children,” Paul Toner, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said in a conference call with reporters after the measure failed. Sen. Brown responded that the criticism was merely “political theater,” according to the Associated Press.

This week, the Senate was scheduled to take up a part of the American Jobs Act that would invest $60 billion in infrastructure—but its focus is on transportation. According to Senate summaries of the legislation, it would not include any money for the school modernization Mr. Obama wants. Still, the administration is hoping the school proposal eventually will get its turn in the spotlight.

Department officials have used speeches by a number of officials to tout the legislation.

Last week, when Linda Hall, the Education Department’s director of rural outreach, went to Virginia for a technical-assistance workshop for rural schools, the department sent out a press release promoting the jobs bill and how her visit would help highlight its benefits.

That same day, Oct. 27, the assistant secretary for special education, Alexa Posny, gave remarks in Oregon at a summit on dispute resolution in special education—and talked up the jobs act.

Leap-Frogging Congress

The Obama administration has also emphasized initiatives that would not require congressional authority. The student-loan plan marked the third initiative the administration rolled out in a week. (The two others involved helping veterans and mortgage holders.)

The student-loan relief will accelerate an income-based loan-repayment plan Congress approved in 2010. Under the plan adopted last year, loan repayments were slated to be capped at 10 percent of discretionary income beginning in 2014. Mr. Obama will start the 10 percent cap in 2012. Anyone who takes out a student loan next year will be eligible.

Administration officials estimate the change will lower payments for 1.6 million borrowers. In addition, the plan will make it easier for students to consolidate certain federal loans.

“These are real savings that will help these graduates get started on their careers,” Secretary Duncan said in a conference call held with reporters last week.

The plan sparked immediate criticism from Republicans.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said President Obama’s student-loan plan would do “nothing to help the nation’s unemployed workers.” He said in a statement the plan would “encourage more borrowing across the board. That means more debt for students, more debt for taxpayers, and more red ink on the government’s books.”

Instead, Mr. Kline urged the president to “get off the campaign trail” and work with Congress to enact 15 House-passed jobs bills that include free-trade agreements and proposals to loosen environmental regulations.

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Political Overtones Increasingly Evident in Education Debate

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