President Barack Obama—who pushed through an unprecedented windfall of education funding in his first term and spurred states to make widespread changes to K-12 policy through competitive grants—has been re-elected, the Associated Press reported tonight.
Although school issues were a major focus of the president’s first four years in office, he did not outline a particularly robust second-term agenda for education during a campaign dominated largely by the economy. As the Democratic standard-bearer, he reiterated a pledge, made earlier this year, to recruit and train 100,000 new math and science teachers, but otherwise steered clear of trumpeting new initiatives. Instead, he focused on the differences between his record and that of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, his Republican rival, on education funding.
Mr. Romney, who made expanding school choice and a slimmed down Education Department part of his campaign platform, conceded early Wednesday morning.
Big questions loom about just how much President Obama will be able to accomplish in his second term. For the past two years, he has been challenged by a U.S. House of Representatives in GOP hands and a Senate with a slim Democratic majority. So far, that has been a recipe for gridlock on everything from budget decisions to reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
With education issues, including funding and college loans, a steady though never central theme on the campaign trail, there is a lot left on Mr. Obama’s to-do list. He has said he would like to condition a portion of federal college aid at least partly on student outcomes. And he’s sought to create a new version of his Race to the Top education redesign program that would focus on postsecondary education—rewarding states for keeping college tuition low while improving student outcomes. So far, Congress hasn’t taken him on up on those ideas.
The president also will need to work with Capitol Hill to stave off steep, across-the-board budget cuts set to go into effect Jan. 2 and enacted as a way to prod action on a long-term deficit-reduction plan.
Mr. Obama’s first term started with a bang, when Congress in 2009 passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included some $100 billion for education, including nearly $50 billion to save teachers’ jobs and $3 billion to turn around the lowest-performing schools. The funding, part of a larger effort to stimulate the recession-ravaged economy, also created several competitive-grant programs, such as Race to the Top, which helped push states to adopt rigorous standards, overhaul teacher evaluation, and expand charter schools.
The president touted those accomplishments on the campaign trail this fall.
“We launched a national competition to improve all our schools,” he said at an Aug. 22 campaign stop in Las Vegas. “We put more money into it, but we also demanded reform. We want teachers to be paid better and treated like the professionals that they are. But we’re also demanding more accountability, including the ability of school districts to replace teachers that aren’t cutting it.”
Still, the stimulus package faced a major political backlash, contributing to Democrats’ loss of control of the House in 2010. After that, the administration was unable to prod Congress to pass a long-overdue reauthorization of the current version of the ESEA: the much-debated No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, Mr. Obama last year announced a waiver program giving states temporary running room in meeting key mandates of the legislation, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2002. So far, 35 applications have been approved.
Even before Inauguration Day, Mr. Obama must work with Congress to head off the looming across-the-board cuts, called “sequestration,” which are set to hit every federal agency, including the U.S. Department of Education, early next year unless Congress acts to avert them.
According to estimates from the White House Office of Management and Budget, such Education Department programs as Title I aid to the states for disadvantaged students and support for special education could be cut by 8.2 percent.
President Obama also will have to work with lawmakers to fix a yawning shortfall in the Pell Grant program for low-income college students and cope with a planned spike in interest rates on student loans.
The budget squeeze may spell trouble for Mr. Obama’s signature programs, including Race to the Top, and the nearly $150 million Investing in Innovation program, or i3, which aims to scale up promising practices at the school district level. House Republicans have sought to eliminate those programs.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former Chicago schools chief whom Mr. Obama tapped for his Cabinet four years ago, has said he would stay on in a second Obama term. Mr. Duncan has been commended from across the political aisle—including by the defeated GOP nominee, Mr. Romney—for his performance as secretary. But he also has attracted criticism from some educators for embracing ideas such as tying teacher evaluations to student test scores and expanding charter schools.
Assuming he does remain at the helm of the Education Department, Mr. Duncan will continue to oversee implementation of the NCLB waivers and will decide how—and whether—states can make changes to their plans. And by the end of the year, he will be overseeing distribution of $400 million in Race to the Top grants to districts that agree to try an individualized approach to learning.
Both teachers’ unions—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—quickly put out statements congratulating Mr. Obama on his victory and making it clear that they think teacher support helped put him over the finish line.
“From day one, NEA members have supported President Obama and his vision for America and public education,” said Dennis Van Roekel, the president of NEA in a statement. “And over the past two years, they worked tirelessly on behalf of America’s public school children.”
“Thousands upon thousands of our members made phone calls, knocked on doors, and reached out in every way they could to get their families, friends, and neighbors to the polls on Election Day—an effort that contributed not only to President Obama’s re-election, but also to victories in key Senate, House, and gubernatorial races across the country,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT in a statement.
While the unions appreciate Mr. Obama’s work in steering funding to save educator jobs, many teachers have criticized the administration for pushing states to link educator evaluations to student test scores and expand charter schools.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week