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Education Reporter

President Obama's Education Policy Takes Shape
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Although the economy has made the most headlines since President Barack Obama took office four months ago, education is another of the new administration's highest priorities. New policies and changes are already going forward, and together with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Obama has unveiled many new aspects of his vision for American education.

In an important speech on March 10 to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., President Obama affirmed some of his highest education priorities: expanding preschool, promoting college attendance, and financing public education in states with large infusions of federal dollars.

Obama has drawn praise from education reformers for his support of charter schools, since the largely Democratic National Education Association (NEA) teachers union has opposed charters. The past few years have seen a turning of the tide, and more and more prominent Democrats now believe that charter public schools are a good idea. Obama's stance, which he reiterated in his March 10 speech, is less a daring departure from party norms than an acknowledgement of what is now widely accepted, that good charter schools can encourage innovation and circumvent some of the most glaring inefficiencies of traditional public schooling. Even Bill Clinton supported charters when the charter school movement was in its infancy.

One opinion that actually does set the president in opposition to one of his main constituencies is his support for merit pay. The NEA's Annual Convention booed Obama in 2007 and 2008 when he mentioned performance-based pay. Obama reiterated his support for that reform in his speech to Hispanic business leaders, saying, "It's time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones." Randi Weingarten, president of the nation's second-largest teachers union, the AFT, recently told Education Week that her union is willing to discuss merit pay. "I know that these conversations sometimes are uncomfortable for us to have, but we're willing to have them," said Weingarten. Anne T. Wass, president of the NEA's Massachusetts affiliate, warned that merit pay proposals would have to be quite creative to win the union's support. "If it means paying individual teachers based on student test scores, . . . we would have a hard time ever compromising on that," said Wass.

Obama mentioned one policy goal on March 10 that he hadn't identified on the campaign trail: the creation of national education standards, consistent across all 50 states. Many conservatives oppose this goal since it would further erode state and local control of education.

Obama's aides made a few notable errors in the speech's preparation. The president lamented that American 8th-graders had "fallen to ninth place" in math compared to their international peers. U.S. 8th-graders did indeed place ninth in the 2008 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, but this represents a significant climb in the rankings over the past decade. In 1999, the U.S. ranked 19th out of the 38 nations in the study, and in 2003, the U.S. ranked 15th. Obama also lamented that the high school dropout rate has "tripled in the past 30 years," but according to Department of Education figures, the dropout rate has actually declined by one-third.

On the subject of college attendance, Obama expressed his strong desire to raise college attendance. (See Education Reporter, April 2009.) In this speech, he stated his goal that by 2020 the U.S will have "the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." As Factcheck.org pointed out, however, this goal would be fairly easy to achieve. The U.S. already has the second-highest proportion of college graduates, with Norway in the lead by just one percentage point.

Increasing School Time and Influence

A policy goal to which Obama has paid much more attention since his inauguration is lengthening the school day and year. Obama mentioned this controversial measure in his March 10 speech. Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, made some shocking statements to the same effect on April 7 in Denver: "I fundamentally think that our school day is too short, our school week is too short and our school year is too short," he told an audience of 400 middle- and high-school students. "You're competing for jobs with kids from India and China. I think schools should be open six, seven days a week; eleven, 12 months a year," he said.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Duncan also elaborated on his vision for schools to become "community centers" open 12-14 hours a day and providing health care, art classes, mentoring, programs for parents, and even "potluck dinners" for community members. Duncan's vision is explicitly for public schools to fill the role in children's lives that is traditionally filled by involved and loving parents:

If you go back 30 or 40 years ago, the average child could get out of school at 2:30, mom was at home, child would go home to mom, dad was working, and get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at 2:30. Today, you have more two-parent working families. You have more single moms working two, three jobs. You have unfortunately maybe children going home to no-parent families. So our society has changed. Our schools have not kept pace, and this is a chance to really create what I think the 21st -century school needs to look like. This needs to be the norm, not the exception. Time matters tremendously, and all of our families need our doors open longer hours.

Economist John Lott, author of Freedomnomics, challenges provisions, including lengthening school hours and expanding government preschool and other services, that benefit unionized teachers and extend the public school monopoly and bureaucracy. "Despite all the rhetoric about improving American education, Obama has ignored one fact," writes Lott: "American children do relatively well compared to children in other countries when they are young. The longer that they are in the American public schooling system, the worse they do."

The implications are more than just academic, writes Lott. "Research shows that the countries with the earliest school starting age are the most totalitarian and socialist countries. Time after time, totalitarian governments found that they can best instill the views and values that the governments wanted by taking the children away from their parents' influence as soon as possible. Longer school days is also a means to increase the influence of the government and decrease that of the family." (FOXNews.com, 4-10-09)

The injection of billions of dollars into state education budgets through the economic stimulus and the new budget gives the president and his Department of Education a loud voice with which to demand certain education policies in states. The $787-billion economic stimulus set $115 billion aside for education. "Don't underestimate the value of money, especially in these hard times," said Bruce Reed of the Democratic Leadership Council. (Education Week, 4-8-09)

Reversing School Choice

Obama and the new Congress frustrated school choice proponents by signing the death warrant of the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, a successful and popular voucher reform that offered poor children a way out of the extraordinarily ineffective D.C. school system. D.C.'s Mayor Adrian Fenty joined with parents to plead for the program's continuation, to no avail. "Now public school teachers and administrators in the District of Columbia do not need to worry about trying to improve, as the competition was wiped out by the stroke of a pen," noted economist Lott.

Obama's Department of Education actually had in its possession a scientific study proving the voucher program's success, but withheld the information until after the legislation shutting the program down had passed. Curiously, Secretary Duncan's official position on the issue was that children in the voucher program should be allowed to continue. The study the Department of Education withheld showed that children who had received vouchers to attend private school since 2004 were academically one-and-a-half to two years ahead of their peers who had stayed in the school system.

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