Society and Culture, Education

Much to Like in Obama’s Education Themes

Like my colleague Checker Finn, I think there’s much to like in the themes of the president’s education remarks in last night’s State of the Union address. As Finn characterizes the president’s immensely broad themes: “Use federal education dollars to reward success, not failure; apply [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan’s “race to the top” reform priorities to the mega-bucks Elementary/Secondary Education Act; and keep a ‘competitive’ element in this rather than simply distributing dollars via formula.” All of this reflects admirable intentions, but, like much else the president listed, it’s much more difficult to do than to say.

For me, there were, however, two discordant notes and one surprising development in the SOTU.

First discordant note. I thought it odd that a president whose administration had just spent $100 billion plus in stimulus funds, primarily to maintain the status quo, would assert, “instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform.” After all, given that 96 percent of stimulus money was spent preserving jobs rather than driving reform, even the administration’s most ardent defenders don’t suggest that the administration has been investing “only in reform.” Instead, they maintain that the spending was necessary given the economic crisis and that the administration did good in pushing as much reform as it did. I’d have been more heartened if the president had declared that his administration had accomplished the tough feat of investing in education reform, despite competing pressures, and would be doing so even more aggressively henceforth.

The second discordant note. How could anyone not like the president’s line, “let’s invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt”? It brought to mind his pledge, last June, that he refused to “kick the can down the road” on tough decisions. Yet, despite the admirable declaration that he was ready to start cleaning up the inexcusable debts that a series of administrations—most notably Bush’s and now Obama’s—have been foisting on our kids and the “flexible discretionary freeze,” the White House signaled last week and last night that edu-spending is going to keep growing. I’d be more reassured by the president’s words and the proposed freeze if there was some sense as to where the cuts offsetting the new ed spending are going to come from. The fear, of course, is that there will be no cuts—and the whole exercise will merely feed the public cynicism that the president so eloquently lamented.

Finally, I was terrifically surprised at how little air education got in the SOTU. It got three paragraphs and perhaps 90 seconds of airtime, max, in a 70-minute speech. Given how well education has played for the president amid rough waters, and that it offered him some easy opportunities for bipartisan applause lines, I would have guessed it would have received three or four times as much play. No idea what that means, if anything, but it was perhaps the one thing that surprised me about the night.

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