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President-Elect Gets School Policy Advice

By David J. Hoff — November 18, 2008 5 min read
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While President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team works behind closed doors, education groups are openly trying to influence the next administration’s K-12 policies.

In a series of position statements and strategy memos, diverse groups are offering their advice on how the president-elect can advance legislation and regulations aimed at meeting his goals of expanding access to preschool, improving the quality of teachers, and revising the No Child Left Behind Act.

“This is a very different president coming in, for a very different administration,” said Claus von Zastrow, the executive director of the Learning First Alliance, a Washington coalition of education groups that includes the teachers’ unions and groups representing school board members, school administrators, and parents. “Groups that have felt they have been on the margins see this as an opportunity to be heard.”

The type of advice varies in its specificity as well as its content.

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Some groups—Mr. von Zastrow’s among them—are recommending fundamental changes to the federal role in education, while others, such as Democrats for Education Reform, are outlining a short-term legislative strategy and recommending people to fill key positions at the Department of Education.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.2 million-member American Federation of Teachers, is urging President-elect Obama and Congress to include education aid in any economic-stimulus package, whether it passes under President George W. Bush or his successor.

“In our view, education and the economy are intertwined,” Ms. Weingarten said in an interview. Any stimulus package for the troubled U.S. economy should help financially strapped state and local governments so they can “continue to be the lifeline to education,” she said.

Ms. Weingarten planned to call for such financial help in a Nov. 17 speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

Stimulus and Beyond

President-elect Obama campaigned on an education agenda that included adding $10 billion a year to federal preschool spending, recruiting “an army of new teachers,” doubling federal funding for charter schools, and providing scholarships to college students and to professionals from other fields who agree to pursue careers in teaching.

Mr. Obama also said he would revise the nearly 7-year-old NCLB law so it focuses on higher-order thinking skills and improves the quality of tests used to measure schools’ effectiveness. (“Obama Gets to Work on Transition,” Nov. 12, 2008.)

Although many of the groups’ proposals are linked closely to Mr. Obama’s agenda, the ones that would add new costs to the federal budget are unlikely to become reality, said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow on education policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

“Based on the realities of the budget, I can’t imagine any new program that will have a price tag,” Mr. Loveless said.

With so many requests from education groups, a spokeswoman for House Republicans said, gop members will challenge any efforts to appease groups in ways that may jeopardize recent efforts to improve schools.

“It’s going to be a real test for the new administration and the majority in Congress ... to keep their eye on the ball for systemic reform instead of satisfying special interests,” said Alexa Marerro, the communications director for Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Slow Start

In the week or so after Mr. Obama won the Nov. 4 election, his transition team worked privately to put a governing team in place. Notably, the president-elect did not introduce any nominees for his Cabinet. The pace of the process suggested that an announcement of Mr. Obama’s choice for secretary of education might not come until after Thanksgiving.

The transition team also gave no indication of how or when the new administration would propose legislation to enact the campaign’s education platform.

In one departure from that silence, Mr. Obama implied that he would support aid to state and local governments as a part of an economic-stimulus package. In discussing the economy at a Nov. 7 news conference, he said that “state and municipal governments [are] facing devastating budget cuts and tax increases.”

But he didn’t specifically say whether he would advocate helping those governments during the slow economy.

While the transition teams works, education groups are working to influence the future administration’s policies. The documents, some of which started circulating before the election, touch on many pieces of President-elect Obama’s agenda.

The Learning First Alliance argues that the federal government should support “state efforts to create more effective and transparent accountability structures that encourage educators, families, and states to collaborate on public school improvement.” That addresses the president-elect’s promise to change the NCLB law to emphasize fixing schools, rather than imposing sanctions on them.

The Center for American Progress Action Fund says in a book outlining its proposals that the “next administration needs to make a major investment in experimenting with innovative initiatives that will increase the supply of highly effective educators.”

That can be accomplished, the Washington-based think tank said, as part of the reauthorization of the NCLB law, which is overdue for renewal in Congress. Title II of the law is dedicated to improving teacher quality.

The think tank, whose founder, John Podesta, is leading the transition team, adds that “experimentation with different compensation systems” should be a central piece of that effort.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama endorsed pay plans that deviate from traditional compensation based on teachers’ years of service and educational attainment. He said any new plans should be developed by working with teachers—an important detail to win the support of the AFT and the National Education Association. Neither union endorsed Mr. Obama in the Democratic primaries, but they did so in the general election.

While many groups focus on issues related to the No Child Left Behind law in their policy prescriptions, others suggest that the new administration should not take a task as large as overhauling the law as its first education initiative.

Democrats for Education Reform proposes instead a new program that “would promote links between high school, job training, and business.”

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In a memo it is circulating to transition-team members, the New York City-based political action group suggests that such a program could incorporate the Obama campaign theme of national service, as well as address the need to link the high school curriculum with expectations for college and the workplace.

“This would set a reformist tone and foreshadow future themes and successes on bigger K-12 fights down the road without an extremely divisive political fight” that might occur during the NCLB law’s reauthorization, the memo from Democrats for Education Reform says.

A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as President-Elect Gets School Policy Advice

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