Teaching Profession

Obama Uses Aid, Executive Muscle to Drive Education Agenda

By Alyson Klein — June 12, 2012 16 min read
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Back in 2008, it wasn’t clear just where candidate Barack Obama’s heart lay when it came to the big issues facing schools.

Although Mr. Obama had been a community organizer, a law professor, and a state legislator, the junior U.S. senator from Illinois didn’t have a long record on K-12 issues, and he rarely spoke about them in his presidential campaign. His advisers included voices from all parts of a Democratic Party bitterly divided on such issues as teacher quality and the role of high-stakes tests.

Some moments hinted at what was to come—such as his expression of support for performance pay for teachers, which was met with boos from the National Education Association. But no one knew for sure just how ambitious Mr. Obama intended to be on K-12 policy if elected.

See Also

Last week, Education Week took an in-depth look at Gov. Mitt Romney’s proposed education agenda and his past policy decisions regarding K-12 schools. Read the full story, “Romney Hones Pitch on Education Policy.”

Now, as President Obama prepares to face the electorate again, there’s little question of where he stands on some of the most hotly debated issues—and little doubt that, if re-elected, he plans to stick with his education redesign agenda.

Fueled by economic-stimulus money and his own executive authority, Mr. Obama’s initiatives—including No Child Left Behind Act waivers and the launch of grant competitions such as Race to the Top—have pressed states and districts to:

• Hold individual teachers more accountable for the performance of their students on standardized tests;

• Remove restrictions on the growth of charter schools;

• Take aggressive action to turn around their lowest-performing schools; and

• Adopt common academic standards intended to prepare students for college and the workforce, bolstered by federal aid to help states develop common assessments.

President Obama greets students before the Joplin High School commencement last month. As he hits the presidential campaign trail again, Mr. Obama can cite an extensive record of action on education, but has also drawn criticism from both sides.

It’s a record of action that, while divisive, rivals that of President George W. Bush in securing passage of the No Child Left Behind law in 2001. Mr. Obama has forged his own path when it comes to the federal role in education, using funding and competitive pressure to prod states and school districts into embracing the administration’s vision for education policy.

“I think the president has made it really clear that the status quo in education is unacceptable,” said Roberto Rodriguez, a special assistant to the president for education policy. “He has embraced reform from day one.”

Political Pushback

Policy Portfolio

President Barack Obama has used a combination of federal stimulus funding, legislative influence, and his own executive authority to pursue an activist agenda of K-12 education since taking office in January 2009.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
During Mr. Obama’s first few months in office, Congress approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was designed to jump-start the sluggish economy. The $100 billion for education included $10 billion for Title I grants for districts to work with disadvantaged students, and more than $11 billion for special education state grants.

Race to the Top/Competitive Grants
The administration has proposed budget increases each year for the U.S. Department of Education, but targeted them to competitive-grant programs. The most prominent is the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, which rewards states that embrace the administration’s education redesign priorities. Other key competitive-grant programs include the Investing in Innovation Program, which helps states scale up promising practices, and Promise Neighborhoods, which help states pair education with wraparound services such as prekindergarten.

Common-Core Standards
The administration has encouraged states to adopt standards that prepare students for college or the workplace, giving significant momentum to the Common Core State Standards, which 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted. States got extra points under the Race to the Top program for signing onto the standards, and states must adopt college- and career-ready standards to get a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act. In addition, $360 million in Race to the Top money is going to states to develop common core-related assessments.

Higher Education
The administration got Congress to scrap the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which offered students loans through subsidizing private lenders. Instead, all loans originate through the federal Direct Lending program, in which students borrow from the U.S. Treasury. It also issued new rules involving the quality and transparency of career programs, including so called “gainful employment” rules that drew sharp criticism from for-profit colleges and Republican lawmakers.

With reauthorization of the law stalled in Congress, the Obama administration is allowing states to get out from under many of the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act—including the student-performance yardstick at the heart of the law, adequate yearly progress—in exchange for embracing certain education redesign priorities.

Teacher Quality
Through Race to the Top and the waiver program, the administration has urged states to revamp teacher evaluation by tying it in part to student outcomes.

Charters and Choice
States are rewarded in Race to the Top for expanding charter schools. But the administration permitted Democrats in Congress to defund the $20 million D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools.

The administration used stimulus money to supercharge the federal School Improvement Grant program, which deals with school turnarounds, but required grant recipients to choose one of four turnaround models, which include some dramatic steps such as closing a school or getting rid of the principal and half the staff.

Early-Childhood Education
The administration is requiring that low-performing providers of Head Start preschool services for low-income students recompete for their grants. It also created a $500 million Race to the Top competition to reward states that revamp their early childhood- education programs.

Civil Rights
The administration has opened dozens of probes into districts’ implementation of civil rights laws, as well as issued guidance on areas such as sexual violence and bullying. It has called on states and districts to release considerably more data, including whether students have equal access to advanced classes.

Source: Education Week

But Mr. Obama’s core initiatives also have plenty of detractors on both sides of the political aisle.

Some progressive Democrats wish he had scrapped federally mandated high-stakes tests, and they bristle over his support for public-school-choice strategies such as charter schools, which they view as straight out of the conservative playbook. And unions have been angered by his push to tie teacher evaluation in part to student outcomes.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, think Mr. Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have pushed states too hard to adopt common standards, which some view as a step toward national curriculum and tests.

Republican lawmakers also lambaste the education spending in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as wasteful and ineffective, and say the waivers granted to states of key parts of the NCLB law trample on congressional authority.

“They’ve overreached,” said U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “There’s been a lot of power in the hands of one person,” he said, in a reference to Mr. Duncan.

Still, Mr. Kline said, no one can accuse Mr. Obama of not doing much on the K-12 front. “They’ve been very active, there’s no question about it. … You have to [acknowledge] the exuberance.”

Most of the president’s marquee K-12 initiatives—including his signature Race to the Top education redesign competition—grew out of the $831 billion recovery act, the stimulus package that cleared Congress in a matter of weeks shortly after Mr. Obama’s inauguration. The legislation, which was aimed at steadying the stumbling economy, included some $100 billion for education and a program for nearly every constituency.

School districts, state education officials, and educators got an unprecedented windfall for formula-grant programs, such as Title I money for districts and special education, on top of $53.6 billion in emergency fiscal aid for recession-strapped states, much of it to preserve teachers’ jobs and benefits.

And education redesign supporters cheered $5 billion for creation of two K-12 competitions—the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation, or i3—plus new money for state longitudinal-data systems, educational technology, and teacher pay-for-performance programs.

During the marathon 2009 negotiations over the stimulus package, which began before Mr. Obama took office, he made a personal appeal to lawmakers, urging them to create what became the Race to the Top competition, White House officials said. The program has charted a new course for Washington in influencing K-12 policy across the country, its champions say.

“These ideas have become a catalyst” for widespread change, said U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee and—as the chairman of the panel at the time—a major architect of the legislative language that became Race to the Top. “I think if you just keep adding funding without this kind of direction, you just get more of the same. … We’re trying to encourage people to break the mold here.”

Even before the federal Department of Education outlined the rules for winning the grants, the Race to the Top proved popular with cash-starved states. Forty states applied in the first round of the competition in 2010, which netted just two winners: Delaware and Tennessee. Another 35 states applied in the second round, which crowned 10 winners.

Even states that lost out took big steps. California dismantled a ban on creation of a statewide data system that could link student and teacher performance. Colorado passed far-reaching teacher-evaluation legislation.

Some Stumbles

But recently, there have been stumbles as states tackle the tricky task of implementation. Nearly every winning Race to the Top state is behind on fulfilling the promises it made in its application. And one state, Hawaii, is hanging on by a thread to its $75 million grant after failing to win union approval for a new teacher-evaluation system.

In campaign materials, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama’s presumptive Republican opponent, cited those delays as proof that the program was “poorly designed.”

President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have used federal education funding and competitive grants to leverage state and school district policy changes that track the president's education agenda.

Even a more sympathetic source, Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said, “The combination of Race to the Top and the budget crisis pushed states to do things they were incapable of implementing right. ... Teacher evaluation is really important, but we’re in the research and development phase.

States “got a relatively small chunk of change in exchange for having to spend a lot of money to do something well,” she said.

Mr. Obama’s critics, including Rep. Kline, have cited those struggles as one reason not to accede to the administration’s desire to make the Race to the Top a permanent part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current edition is the No Child Left Behind law. Such opposition might mean that the K-12 program most closely associated with Mr. Obama won’t survive his tenure in the White House, regardless of whether he is re-elected in November.

That wouldn’t disappoint many school district leaders, education advocates, and others in the field who would rather see the money steered to the major formula grants that go out to every district.

But Mr. Rodriguez, the White House adviser, argues that the Race to the Top has spurred big and lasting change, including helping to advance the Common Core State Standards, which 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted.

“This is a state-led effort, and the president has been really clear about that from the get-go,” Mr. Rodriguez said. But he added: “We are going to take credit for helping to accelerate the adoption of these standards throughout the country. Race to the Top clearly did that.”

In fact, some state lawmakers have sought to slow or thwart implementation of the standards, which they contend have gotten too much of a federal push.

‘Out of the Bottle’

The move to overhaul teacher evaluation—accelerated in part by the grant competition—will continue even if the Race to the Top doesn’t survive, argued Alice Johnson Cain, who served as a top aide to Rep. Miller during consideration of the stimulus legislation.

When it comes to teacher-effectiveness measures, “the genie is out of the bottle,” said Ms. Cain, who is now the vice president of Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization in Boston that works to empower educators to have a voice in policy.

While new evaluation systems are still being refined, she said, “teachers see the need for something better, and there are enough data points that show success or at least real promise.”

Others caution that it’s too early to draw conclusions about the Race to the Top’s long-term impact.

“I wouldn’t put up ‘Mission Accomplished’ banners yet for this one,” said Paul Manna, an associate professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., who has written about the program. “Do we have better teachers? Do we have more-rigorous content? We don’t know yet.”

Unions’ Measured Support

While teachers’ unions—traditional Democratic allies whose muscle and money are likely to be important for Mr. Obama’s re-election bid—haven’t been thrilled by his insistence on pushing states to revamp teacher evaluation, they still have warm feelings for the administration’s championship of substantial spending to avert layoffs.

The scale of the K-12 portion of the recovery act, the bulk of which went to save teachers’ jobs, dwarfed even the heady spending promises Mr. Obama made during his 2008 campaign, when he called for a new, $18 billion investment in education.


January 2007
U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., introduces legislation encouraging “Innovation Districts,” which later served as a model for programs like Race to the Top.

Education has been an element of Barack Obama’s policy agenda throughout his tenure in the White House, with common elements evident at various stages along the way. —Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP-File

LONG TRAIL: Education has been an element of Barack Obama’s policy agenda throughout his tenure in the White House, with common elements evident at various stages along the way.

July 2008
Then-presidential candidate Obama gives a speech at the National Education Association convention supporting merit pay and is booed.

February 2009
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
Congress passes the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, providing some $100 billion for education, including $4.35 billion for Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.

—Charles Borst/Education Week-File

STIMULUS AID: President Obama signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in 2009.

March 2010
ESEA Reauthorization Blueprint
The administration releases its playbook for overhauling the No Child Left Behind Act.

March 2010
Student Loans
In tandem with the national health-care- overhaul law, the administration significantly diminishes the role of the private sector in originating student loans.

August 2010
Education Jobs Act
Congress provides an additional $10 billion to avert teacher layoffs at the state level—but not before Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the appropriations chairman, tries to cut Obama priorities such as Race to the Top to pay for it.

November 2010
Midterm Election
Democrats lose seats in the U.S. Senate, and Republicans take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, making it much harder for the administration to enact its agenda.

September 2011
The administration outlines rules for states seeking wiggle room from parts of the NCLB law.

December 2011
Race to the Top Early Learning
The administration allocates $500 million to nine states to expand early learning.

February-May 2012
The first and second rounds of waiver recipients are announced. Draft rules released on nearly $400 million in grants to districts.

Source: Education Week

In 2010, in what was seen as a follow-on to the stimulus aid, Congress approved an additional, $10 billion Education Jobs Fund to help prevent teacher layoffs. Initially, Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., then the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, sought to cut Race to the Top, as well as money for teacher performance pay and charter school aid, to help pay for the fund. Lawmakers changed course following a veto threat from the White House.

The Obama administration estimates that the stimulus and the Education Jobs Fund collectively saved or created 420,000 teacher jobs, said Elizabeth Utrup, a department spokeswoman.

Teachers’ unions remain grateful to Mr. Obama for the jobs money and say it will help Mr. Obama’s re-election bid.

“I think they will remember what he did, and they will support him for that,” Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the 3.2 million-member NEA.

But many have argued that the stimulus spending didn’t do much besides temporarily patch budget holes. Many of the jobs that were saved were lost two years later, when the tidal wave of funding receded, Rep. Kline argued.

“The stimulus was an abject failure,” he said. “It didn’t fix any structural problems [in education]. Just pouring money into any of these problems is not a good idea. [Mr. Obama] gets an F-minus for that.”

Mr. Romney’s campaign echoed that sentiment, saying in a white paper released last month that “the vast majority of the [stimulus] dollars have not been invested in implementing the types of reforms required to produce real results.” Instead, it cited the stimulus money as evidence of Mr. Obama’s “very special relationship” with unions.

Grant Fatigue?

Congress has also become increasingly wary of the administration’s reliance on competitive grants. In budget request after budget request, the president has asked only for tiny increases for programs serving disadvantaged students and helping with special education.

Meanwhile, he’s sought big money for Race to the Top; the i3 program, which aims to scale up promising practices at the state and district levels; Promise Neighborhoods, which helps communities pair education with health and other services; and the Teacher Incentive Fund, which gives grants to districts to create pay-for-performance programs.

The thirst for those dollars among education nonprofits, states, and districts has been virtually unquenchable: Nearly 1,700 districts, nonprofit groups, and other organizations applied for the first round of i3 awards in 2010.

But some in education—particularly rural superintendents—have felt left out of the mix.

A competitive-grant strategy “works zero for rural schools,” said Jimmy Cunningham, the superintendent of the 550-student Hampton school district in Arkansas. “It appears most of these grants are going to urban settings.”

Despite the pushback, the administration isn’t backing off competitive grants anytime soon. In fact, the Education Department is seeking to make a quarter of the nearly $2.5 billion Improving Teacher Quality State Grant program competitive in its fiscal 2013 proposal. And it wants to inject more competition into career and technical education programs.

Competition has also been a theme of the administration’s early-childhood-education proposals. Last year, it created a $500 million version of Race to the Top geared to helping states improve such programs, and nine states got grants in December. The administration also is demanding that Head Start grantees that don’t meet certain program requirements recompete for their grants.

The Head Start move, in particular, was “historic. In 50 years, it’s never been done,” said W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. When it comes to early-childhood education, the Obama administration, “get[s] an A for commitment, given the available resources,” he said.

But Mr. Barnett is not sure whether the Education Department’s criteria for awarding the Race to the Top early-learning grants were the right ones. For example, some states that received grants, such as California and Ohio, have cut aid for early-childhood learning, he said.

NCLB Waivers

The administration hasn’t managed to win support for its top K-12 legislative goal: a full-fledged reauthorization of the ESEA, the nation’s main K-12 education law. Instead, it’s decided to work around Congress through the controversial process of temporary state waivers.

Secretary Duncan released a blueprint for renewing the law in March 2010; it collected legislative dust for more than a year. So, the next summer, the administration announced that it would grant waivers of parts of the law to states willing to move forward on many policies at the heart of Race to the Top competition, including adopting college- and career-readiness standards, crafting new teacher-evaluation systems, and taking an aggressive approach to turning around the lowest-performing schools.

The move was seen by Republicans on Capitol Hill as a power grab.

The waivers have effectively made Mr. Duncan “the chairman of a national school board,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. Mr. Alexander supports Mr. Obama on a number of other K-12 fronts, including the continuation of the Race to the Top and federal support for performance pay.

So far, 19 states have been granted waivers, and an additional 17 states and the District of Columbia have applications pending.

The approach could inform reauthorization, Mr. Duncan said.

President Barack Obama prepares to give a speech to high school graduates in Joplin, Mo., last month. A tornado ravaged the town last year.

“If Congress is smart, they’ll take the best of the best from these waiver applications,” the education secretary said in an interview last month. “That would be an extraordinary reauthorization of the law.”

Many of the waivers that have been approved so far put much less emphasis than does the NCLB law on the performance of particular subgroups of students, such as English-language learners and students in special education, which has upset some civil rights groups.

“States are getting the flexibility they clamored for, and now it’s up to them to prove that the federal government was right in giving them this flexibility,” said Raul Gonzalez, the director of legislative affairs for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group in Washington. “If they can’t prove it, then it will be time for the feds to tighten up the reins again.”

Some state schools chiefs are delighted to have the new running room, and say they remain committed to making sure all students succeed.

“No one is backing away from accountability, no one is backing away from transparency,” said Lillian M. Lowery, a Democrat who was Delaware’s secretary of education but takes over as Maryland’s state superintendent next month. Both states have been approved for waivers, which, she said, “gave states the opportunity to pursue those goals in a realistic way.”

Others, though, say the waiver plan amounts to trading one set of mandates for another.

“I don’t call it a waiver package, because it’s not; it’s a replacement package,” said Ronald J. Tomalis, the Republican-appointed secretary of education in Pennsylvania, which has not applied for the flexibility.

Testing, Higher Education

On the other end of the political spectrum, President Obama’s staunch support for the use of standardized testing has earned him some ardent critics among progressive Democrats—a sore point on display at the Save Our Schools march in Washington last summer.

The crowd of educators, parents, advocates, and others at that event called for an end to high-stakes tests and dismissal of Mr. Duncan.

One organizer, Richard J. Meyer, a professor of literacy at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, is reluctant to back Mr. Obama’s re-election bid.

“He hasn’t delivered,” Mr. Meyer, who served on the march’s executive committee, said in an email. “I anticipated that Obama and the Department of Education would dismantle the legislated malpractice that has saturated schools for the past 10-plus years.”

The administration also has made political enemies among lawmakers on the political right with its policies for higher education, including new legislation, passed along with the health-care-overhaul bill in 2010, to ensure that all federally backed student loans originate with the U.S. Treasury instead of with subsidized private lenders.

“I was disappointed with the federal takeover of student loans,” said Sen. Alexander. “It turned Arne Duncan into the biggest banker of the year.”

But others defended the move.

“I think it was a really good idea,” said Kevin Carey, the director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. “It saved the taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, to do something that the federal government is perfectly capable of doing well.”

Mr. Obama also has proposed encouraging higher education systems to rein in costs while improving student results. He wants to create a Race to the Top for higher education and calls for colleges to provide much more information about their costs and outcomes for graduates. And he has sought to tie some federal student aid to colleges’ outcomes in such areas as graduation rates.

Those proposals haven’t advanced very far in Congress.

Unfinished Business

So far on the 2012 campaign trail, President Obama has made a bigger deal of his administration’s higher education proposals than its work on K-12.

For instance, Mr. Obama appeared on the “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” television program in April to highlight congressional opposition to a proposal to keep federal loans rates stable at 3.4 percent. He also visited at least three college campuses in swing states to showcase his higher education record and stump for his policies.

But Mr. Duncan touted Race to the Top early in a wide-ranging speech, titled “The Obama Administration’s Education Record,” earlier this spring at the National Press Club in Washington. He also highlighted the administration’s work on waivers, standards, college financial aid, and teacher quality.

In the recent interview, the secretary made clear that the administration isn’t backing away from its strategy of using competitive grants to improve education at every level.

“The amount of work you’ve seen in this country—that’s been in part due to having some real incentives out there for folks,” Mr. Duncan said. “This is about transformational change.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Education Week as Obama Uses Funding, Executive Muscle to Make Often-Divisive Agenda a Reality


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