The Obama Administration's Imprint on K-12 Policy: A Roundup

From his Race to the Top program to civil rights enforcement and his focus on early education and immigrant students, President Barack Obama made education a signature issue.

Race to the Top

By Alyson Klein

Policy Push: A $4 billion grant competition created through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 may be President Obama’s highest-profile K-12 policy initiative. The Race to the Top program awarded 11 states and the District of Columbia five-year grants, ranging from $75 million to $700 million, in exchange for embracing a basket of education policies promoted by the administration. Those measures included teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, dramatic steps to produce school turnarounds, enhanced data systems, and college-and-career-readiness standards common to a significant number of states. (In practice, only the Common Core State Standards counted in the actual awarding of the grants.)

Impact: Some experts argue that the program’s biggest successes came before the money was even allocated, as dozens of states considered or made changes to teacher-evaluation systems, standards, turnaround practices, and other policies in order to be competitive for the grants. Still, an October 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences found no hard and fast evidence that the program had had an impact on state policy or student outcomes.

Going Forward: Though the Obama administration pushed to have Race to the Top enshrined in law, the program fell out of favor with Congress—the Every Student Succeeds Act actually bars any future administration from enticing states to pick certain standards, tests, or educator-evaluation systems. Still, some Race to the Top-inspired policies continue. For instance, 36 states plus the District of Columbia continue to use the common-core standards.

Federal Education Law

By Alyson Klein

Policy Push: The Obama administration inherited a broken No Child Left Behind Act and spent considerable energy pressing for a revision of the main federal K-12 law. In its second term, the administration worked to ensure its education priorities were reflected in NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act.


  • NCLB Waivers: In 2011, with Congress still unable to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered states waivers of key mandates of the law, such as the requirement to set aside money for school choice and tutoring. In exchange, states had to embrace certain education redesign priorities, such as dramatic turnaround measures for the poorest-performing schools. States also had to agree to evaluate their teachers based in part on student test scores, and adopt standards that would get students ready for college or careers, such as the Common Core State Standards. Eventually, those waivers were in place in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.
  • ESSA: In 2015, Congress passed ESSA. The bipartisan law maintained key parts of the NCLB waivers, such as the requirement that states take steps to turn around the bottom 5 percent of schools. But it rejected others, such as mandating teacher evaluation tied to student outcomes. It also put new restrictions on the U.S. education secretary’s authority—provisions intended to keep future secretaries from flexing their executive muscles as Duncan did.

Going Forward: The Obama administration has spent the past year developing ESSA regulations as states were brainstorming about their accountability plans. It’s unclear if the Trump administration will keep the Obama regulations in place, or how the new team will approach implementation.

Immigration & Youth

By Corey Mitchell

Policy Push: Established by President Obama’s executive order in 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, known as DACA, grants undocumented youths who were brought to the United States as children temporary relief from deportation and a two-year work authorization. The policy applies to immigrant children who entered the country before they were 16 years old and have lived in the U.S. at least five years; applicants must also be high school graduates, GED recipients, or honorably discharged military veterans.

Impact: More than 740,000 young people participate in DACA, federal data show, and all of them had to voluntarily provide potentially sensitive information, such as names and addresses, to the federal government. The participants mostly are among the group known as Dreamers, in recognition of the DREAM Act, a failed congressional bill that would have offered them a pathway to permanent residency. Researchers at the Migration Policy Institute found that nearly two-thirds of DACA-eligible individuals are concentrated in California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois.

Going Forward: During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump pledged to get rid of DACA, and the prospect that the new administration could track down recipients of DACA status and some of their relatives has raised alarm in immigrant communities. U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, have introduced legislation that would shield the personal information of participants and grant the DACA-eligible a three-year deportation reprieve.

Over the past seven years, the good news is that our students have made real strides. We’ve seen states raise academic expectations for all students. ... High school graduation rates have reached an all-time high; dropout rates have hit historic lows. The number of high schools so bad they’re called ‘dropout factories’ has been cut almost in half.

School Turnarounds

By Alyson Klein

Policy Push: The Obama administration made turnaround of the nation’s lowest-performing schools a top priority from the start, using as its main vehicle the existing School Improvement Grant program, which was created under the No Child Left Behind Act but never got much funding. That changed in 2009 with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which funneled $3 billion into SIG. The program also got annual appropriations ranging from about $534 million in fiscal year 2011 to $450 million in fiscal 2016.

What’s more, the administration attached new strings to the program that called on states to try dramatic interventions, such as closing a school down, turning it into a charter, firing half the staff and the principal, or adding to the school day.

Impact: The program had decidedly mixed results at the school level, with only about two-thirds of the schools that started their turnarounds in its first year seeing improvement. But another third slid backward. And the U.S. Department of Education didn’t do a great job of making sure that the performance of contractors hired with SIG dollars was reviewed, according to a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Going Forward: ESSA eliminated the program and instead called for states to use part of their Title I money for school improvement. To fix their lowest-performing schools and schools where certain subgroups of students aren’t performing well, states must use interventions that have some evidence of success behind them. The Education Department is barred from telling a state what interventions it can or can’t use.

Early Education

By Christina A. Samuels

Policy Push: During his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a state-federal partnership that would make high-quality preschool available to every child. Focusing first on 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families, it carried a price tag of $75 billion, with federal funding coming from tobacco-tax revenue.

The plan included incentives for full-day kindergarten, pay for partnerships between child-care providers and Early Head Start, and expanded voluntary home-visiting programs providing parenting coaches to at-risk young families.

Impact: Preschool for All as a full-blown program never got off the ground. But several elements of Obama’s proposal made it into law.

For example, a 2015 spending bill provided $500 million for Early Head Start Child-Care Partnership grants, which offered federal money to child-care programs that agreed to follow Head Start’s more stringent quality standards. In fiscal 2016, Congress allotted an additional $135 million for that program.

Eighteen states have been awarded $710 million in preschool-development grants to expand or create programs for 4-year-olds. Home-visiting programs received an $800 million boost in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The U.S. Department of Education also awarded $15 million to two state consortia and one state, Texas, to develop kindergarten-entry assessments.

Going Forward: Preschool-development grants are written into the Every Student Succeeds Act and authorized for up to $250 million, but are dependent on continued federal funding. Also dependent on congressional lawmakers is increased funding for Head Start that would provide a full school day and year for all the children currently enrolled. New performance standards for Head Start have set 2021 as a deadline for the program expansion, but the incoming U.S. secretary of health and human services has the authority to extend the deadline.

As for the incoming administration, President-elect Donald Trump during his campaign released a fairly detailed set of early-childhood proposals, including guaranteeing six weeks of paid maternity leave; allowing a family with a stay-at-home parent to deduct child-care costs from taxes; and creating dependent-care savings accounts for child care and education.

Civil Rights

By Evie Blad

Policy Push: Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Education, sometimes in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice, has issued 34 guidance documents putting schools and districts on notice about their obligations under federal civil rights laws.

Those documents spanned a range of issues, including school discipline, transgender-student accommodations, bullying, sexual assault, and the needs of students with disabilities. The Education Department’s office for civil rights also stepped up enforcement in such areas as the disproportionately high rates of suspensions for black boys.

In 2009, the Justice Department’s civil rights division launched an aggressive enforcement of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C., which requires states to eliminate unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities, including by educational entities. And the Education Department’s civil rights office increased the data it collects on schools in a number of areas—including student discipline, access to advanced coursework, and levels of teacher experience—to look for patterns of inequitable treatment.

Impact: The number of public complaints fielded by the Education Department more than doubled during President Obama’s time in office, increasing from 6,364 in fiscal 2009 to 16,720 in fiscal 2016. A number of schools, districts, and states have agreed to change policies and practices in response to investigations by federal agencies. The Justice Department’s Olmstead enforcement has led to settlement agreements designed to provide more integrated opportunities for people with disabilities.

But some actions have drawn backlash—most notably, the administration’s push to allow transgender students to use school restrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity rather than their biological sex at birth.

Going Forward: Transition advisers to President-elect Donald Trump have indicated he could roll back some Obama-era guidance and the approach of its office for civil rights. U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Trump’s choice for attorney general, in a 2011 Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, warned against the Justice Department using its power “as a sword to assert inappropriate claims that have the effect of promoting political agendas.”

TOP PHOTO: President Obama shakes hands with then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the Oct. 2, 2015, announcement that Duncan would step down. Duncan, who played a central role in carrying out Obama’s education vision, was succeeded by John B. King Jr., center.
CREDIT: Andrew Harnik/AP-File

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as Leaving His Imprint on K-12 Policy