Making the Grade

Along with banks, foreclosures, and jobs, education stands as a key focus of President Barack Obama’s vision for restoring prosperity in America. To address the immediate crisis, the president emphasized that he would direct public funds to banks, shovel-ready infrastructure, and state budgets, including funding for teacher’s jobs. In the long run, though, public investment in education will be even more central to reinstating American prosperity and leadership among nations.

Obama’s recently passed Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated one hundred billion dollars in aid to education, including substantial investment in building new schools and shoring up resources like student loan and grant programs. Beyond the funding, what is Obama’s education philosophy?

The president’s education agenda is not so much a radical break from the past as it is a radical commitment of resources to support publicly funded education. Obama’s program embraces the standardized testing imposed by the Bush administration, but seeks to add funding to improve and support programs envisioned, but not budgeted for, in Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation.

While the Bush administration sought to move toward competition among schools through support for private school vouchers as a way out of problems in public schooling, the Obama administration seeks to invest in and better manage the public system.

The President’s agenda is outlined on the administration’s website. The plan for grades K-12 includes the following steps:

• Reform No Child Left Behind

• Support High-Quality Schools and Close Low-Performing Charter Schools

• Make Math and Science Education a National Priority

• Address the Dropout Crisis

• Expand High-Quality After school Opportunities

• Support College Outreach Programs

• Support College Credit Initiatives

• Support English Language Learners

• Recruit Teachers

• Prepare Teachers

• Retain Teachers

• Reward Teachers

The hundred billion stimulus dollars earmarked for education will likely prove only a down payment on these goals, but Obama’s belief seems to be that education prepares the work force for the kind of business, academic, government, and creative leadership that will be necessary to compete in the global market place.

In Obama’s recent address to Congress, he received a standing ovation when he said his goal was to have a greater percentage of students graduating college in the United States in 2020 than anywhere else in the world. This would be a notable accomplishment, as American schools have lost the edge in certain key areas during the past twenty-five years. Math and reading scores among twelfth-graders have slipped appreciably, and the percentage of black and Latino students who fail to graduate from high school continues to dismay.

Obama has appointed Arne Duncan, formerly Superintendent of the Chicago School District, as his Secretary of Education. With one hundred billion dollars to spend and a chief executive commited to prioritizing American education going forward, one anticipates that Duncun will be an important voice in domestic policy in the coming years.

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