WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's 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 Obama's 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 can't 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 Department's 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 House's 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 won't 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, who has said he would like to stay on for Obama's second term, has hinted at the administration's focus. Petrilli and others closely watching the administration's signals on education say it's likely the focus will be on early childhood education and higher ed.
Pre-kindergarten was a major focus for Obama in his first term, when he strengthened Head Start's 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 there's 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 sector's role in issuing federally backed and subsidized loans.
Higher ed 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 that's 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.
There's bipartisan agreement in Congress that the law should be fixed and reauthorized. "While the administration's 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 chairs 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 didn't 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.
In a sign of the uneven pace of progress, a major stimulus-funded grant program to turn around the worst performing schools showed mixed results in its first year, according to Education Department data released Monday.
Two-thirds of schools that received School Improvement Grants showed an uptick in math and reading scores, although most of those schools were already making progress before the grants were distributed. But scores declined at more than one in four schools that had been improving the year before grants started. Duncan said turning around failing schools is a long-term process and that a single year of scores paints an incomplete picture.
Lawmakers are also 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 we're supposed to have, adding to uncertainty," Republican Rep. John Kline, the House Education and the Workforce Committee chairman, said in an interview.
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 Obama's re-election, but Obama's Education Department stayed neutral on the strike, and his former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, led the fight against striking teachers.
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