Re-Educating America Will Be No Picnic

04/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Madeleine M. Kunin First Female Governor of Vermont; Marsh Scholar, University of Vermont

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama play basketball together. During Obama's major education policy address last week it became clear that they are not just buddies on the court -- they play together for the cause of education reform.

Obama recognizes that if the United States is to pull out of this recession for the long term, we must invest in education.

I learned that lesson as Governor. A chief executive can tout myriad assistance programs, ranging from food stamps to Medicaid, but there is only one program that sweeps the canvas with a broad brush, hitting almost every sector of the population, and that is education.

Presidents have not become widely engaged with education because in America, it has been largely a state and local responsibility. I must give credit to President George Bush for taking some federal responsibility for the inequities that exist among White, African American and Hispanic children, as revealed in test scores and graduation rates.

"No Child Left Behind" has many detractors because of its laser focus on test scores without taking a broader look at the causes of both success and failure. But the law has forced Americans to focus on the reality that a child's opportunity to learn depends on who he or she is, and where he or she happens to reside, whether that is an affluent suburb or an inner city school.

It took Republican President George Bush to be the first to step on "local control" zealots' toes -- an initiative that now makes it more possible for a Democratic President to take his federal reform efforts further. There is little doubt that students in Mississippi will never catch up to students in Massachusetts without federal carrots and sticks. The watered down tests that many states have devised to avoid tough national standards tell us that states will continue to take the easiest way out, unless the federal government hovers over them.

Obama covered the landscape from increased early childhood education to greater access to a college education. He focused on the importance of teachers -- rewarding the good ones with merit pay and getting rid of the bad ones, somehow.

Having worked in the U.S. Department of Education as Deputy Secretary for three and a half years in the Clinton administration, I know his reform proposals won't go down easily. Lengthening the school day and the school year will mean fighting against a long established tradition, even as some school districts are going in the opposite direction -- to four day school weeks -- because of budget cuts.

The greatest power the president has, in addition to recommending hefty budget increases to the Education department, is his bully pulpit. Every time he tells the story about his own mother, he sends a strong message about parental involvement. It was his mother who woke him up at 4:30 in the morning, before she went to work and he went to school, in order to teach him material from a correspondence course. When he complained about getting up so early, his mother told him, "This is no picnic for me either, buster."

It's time that parents, communities, states and the nation recognize that improving our children's chances to fulfill their own great potential will only be possible if we make sacrifices for them, and that will be no picnic either.

This was originally posted at Chelsea Green.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.