WASHINGTON President Barack Obamas education agenda for next four years may look less like real reform and more like tying up loose ends, experts say, with practical budget issues and an age-old power struggle between Congress and the administration getting in the way.
Campaign-year aspirations for Obamas second term included closing the educational achievement gap and boosting college graduation rates to the highest in the world. But those lofty goals may have to wait, as lawmakers and Obama tackle a number of gritty funding-related issues that just cant wait.
First up is sequestration, the automatic, government-wide spending cuts set to knock out 8.2 percent of the funding to almost all of the Education Departments programs unless Congress acts before the end of the year to avert the cuts.
Programs intended to reduce educational inequities will take a hit of $1.3 billion, according to the White Houses Office of Management and Budget. Special education, already funded far below the levels Congress originally promised, will be slashed by more than $1 billion. Most of the reductions wont take effect until next fall, when the 2013-14 school year starts, but Impact Aid, which helps districts that lose revenue due to local tax-exempt federal property, would be cut immediately.
Education advocates are optimistic a plan will be hashed out that will leave most major education programs relatively unscathed.
Even Republicans understand that cutting education spending is not something that is popular with voters, said Michael Petrilli, a former Education Department official and executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.
What comes next is less certain. The Education Department refused to comment on its agenda for the next four years, but Secretary Arne Duncan has hinted at the administrations focus. Petrilli and others closely watching the administrations signals on education say its likely the focus will be on early childhood education and higher education.
Pre-kindergarten was a major focus for Obama in his first term, when he strengthened Head Starts accountability rules and expanded his Race to the Top program to include pre-K.
In Congress, both parties agree that college costs are spiraling out of control, but theres not much government can do to control that. What it can control is student aid, and the debate about federal loans raises a familiar disagreement about the role of government. In 2010, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, the federal government cut banks out of the process and started administering all loans directly. Many Republicans favor restoring the private sectors role in issuing federally backed and subsidized loans.
Higher education also comes with a delicate set of ticking time bombs. Student loan interest rates, capped at 3.4 percent for new subsidized Stafford loans, are set to double July 1, the expiration date for a stopgap Congress passed last year. Pell Grants, the main source of federal aid for low-income students, face the same type of crisis as entitlements like Medicare and Social Security: a cost curve thats become difficult to contain as more people take part.
When it comes to K-12 education, the prospects increase for a tug of war between Obama and Congress.
Lawmakers are more than half a decade overdue to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Education Department has been copiously granting waivers to No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era iteration of the act, giving states flexibility with performance targets.
Theres bipartisan agreement in Congress that the law should be fixed and reauthorized. While the administrations efforts to grant waivers are helpful for states operating under the tenets of No Child Left Behind, these fixes are temporary and piecemeal, Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democrat who is chairman of the Senate committee responsible for education, said in an email.
But the Obama administration has shown little desire to put the policy back in lawmakers hands. Duncan didnt mention reauthorization in a lengthy speech in October laying out his agenda.
Waivers are not a pass on accountability, but a smarter, more focused and fair way to hold ourselves accountable, Duncan said in that speech.
Lawmakers also are eager to reclaim control of Race to the Top, the multibillion-dollar grant competition program Obama created in 2009 to prod states into changing laws and raising standards. The administration opened the competition to school districts this year, but with stimulus funds exhausted, the size of the program shrank dramatically.
With Race to the Top, and then these conditional waivers, it is bypassing Congress and the process were supposed to have, adding to uncertainty, Republican Rep. John Kline, the House Education and the Workforce Committee chairman, said in an interview.
Lawmakers from both parties may be more timid next term about embracing Common Core, a set of uniform benchmarks for math and reading adopted by almost every state, after the defeat of Tony Bennett, the Indiana schools superintendent whose surprise loss in this months election was largely attributed to his support for the curriculum.
Teacher assessments are at the heart of another potential flashpoint. Chicago teachers walked off the job for more than a week in September, largely over demands that their evaluations be tied to student test scores. Teachers unions enthusiastically backed Obamas re-election, but Obamas Education Department stayed neutral on the strike, and his former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, led the fight against striking teachers.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said theres a fixation on top-down, testing-based evaluations that marginalize teachers while holding them responsible for the effects of budgetary decisions far beyond their control.
If all those things happen at the same time, then well have the problems we had in Chicago, Weingarten said. If were serious about working together to help all kids succeed, giving them the coursework and wraparound services and great teachers they deserve, then it will be different.