President Obama will send the outlines of an education overhaul bill to Congress on Monday, promising sweeping changes to a faltering American education system.
While short on specifics, Mr. Obama said he wants to push for more local control of schools, recognize and reward excellence among students and teachers, emphasize math and science, build better standardized tests, and in general raise expectations for American schools in the cities, the suburbs, and the country.
“Now, debates in Washington tend to be consumed with the politics of the moment: who’s up in the daily polls; whose party stands to gain in November,” Obama said in his weekly Saturday radio address. "But what matters to you – what matters to our country – is not what happens in the next election, but what we do to lift up the next generation.”
Obama went on to say: “What this plan recognizes is that while the federal government can play a leading role in encouraging the reforms and high standards we need, the impetus for that change will come from states, and from local schools and school districts. So, yes, we set a high bar – but we also provide educators the flexibility to reach it.”
Obama has already signaled he intends to use federal levers to try to improve America’s K-12 public education system, which is losing ground to some other industrialized nations and which graduates only about 70 percent of students who start high school. Blacks and Latinos are particularly affected by high dropout rates and academic achievement gaps.
Last year’s economic stimulus package included $3.5 billion to help failing schools, and the president has proposed another $900 million for states and schools districts that agree to drastically reform or close their worst schools.
(Kansas City school officials this week decided to shutter 26 public schools at the end of the academic year, though the problem that led to the decision is financial, not performance. Still, it is an indicator of the wide range of problems facing US public schools and the reform movement during a down economy.)
With a goal of having every child read at grade level by 2014, No Child Left Behind has been criticized by current Education Secretary Arne Duncan as "utopian" and as failing to properly reward schools for progress. One change under his proposed legislative blueprint, Obama said, would be that schools that perform well would be rewarded, while underperforming schools would face tough consequences.
A focus on education reform may be a politically astute move for the president and fellow Democrats in Congress, some of whom face difficult elections in the fall. Education reform, unlike financial regulatory reform or new environmental laws, is a kitchen-table issue that many Americans support.
“The announcement's timing suggests Obama is looking beyond the health care proposal that still lingers in Congress, has delayed the president's international trip next week, and threatens his party's electoral prospects in November,” writes the Associated Press.
But the president’s decision to burn up political capital on a smorgasbord of endeavors that has little to do with bringing down unemployment may frustrate many Americans – and could backfire.
“We’re being told – and even worse, Obama and the Democrats are being told – that their narrative is not getting through … [and that] the wonderfulness of all that they’ve done is somehow not being recognized by the slow-to-catch-on masses. That’s just silly,” writes New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. “People are … losing faith that their elected representatives are looking out for their best interests.”