01/23/2013 04:55 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

Turning Promising Signals Into Better Policies in Obama's Second Term

Getty Images

The weeks leading up to President Obama's second inauguration brought some good, if tentative, news on the education policy front. Early childhood education has received serious attention and pledges of substantial new investment. Skepticism is rising regarding the number and inappropriate use of standardized tests, and courts in several states are trying to make education more equitable. At the same time, the narrow "reforms" that have been front and center through Obama's first term may be fading a bit.

Joy Resmovitz reports for The Huffington Post that, in response to concerns that the current White House education policy agenda is lacking in intentionality and equity, and fails to seriously address "the civil rights issue of our generation," Secretary Duncan is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to craft a "universal" pre-k program that would provide all low-income and many middle-income four-year-olds with access to federally funded pre-kindergarten. Some early childhood advocates worry that a narrow focus on academic preparation will neglect the support for early health, nutrition, and other developmental domains that Head Start provides, and also that state management will leave the investment vulnerable to budget cuts. It will thus be critical to ensure that, even assuming funding is obtained for the substantial investment, winning middle class support and expanding access does not come at the expense of core services for the neediest children.

In New York, the New NY Education Reform Commission, which emphasized in its preliminary set of recommendations to Governor Cuomo the negative impacts of child poverty, made early childhood education investments a top priority. Cuomo has already begun to act on that suggestion, announcing last week a proposal for both full-day kindergarten and full-day pre-kindergarten across the state. There, too, advocates praised the initiative but voiced concerns regarding how funding would be obtained.

And in Massachusetts, which already employs a relatively comprehensive educational strategy, Governor Duval Patrick has pledged $350 million for high-quality early childhood education over the next four years, with $151 million allotted for fiscal year 2014. Specifically, the plan "would provide universal access to high quality early education for children across the state, from birth through age five." Patrick notes that he would not suggest raising income taxes to fund these new investments in the current difficult economy, if he were not so certain that they are necessary to grow the state's economy and strengthen it for future generations.

The Washington State Supreme Court issued a strong order to the legislature to develop a concrete plan to fulfill its mandate of making the education system more equitable. A State Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee hearing on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day featured BBA signatory and National Superintendents Roundtable Executive Director James Harvey, who strongly urged Chairman Kitzow and his fellow members to start from birth and think holistically as they work to fulfill that demand. On January 23, state Communities in Schools Executive Director Susan Richards will follow up with supporting evidence of the positive impacts of a comprehensive approach. In both Arizona and Kansas, state courts have declared recession-induced education budget cuts unconstitutional or otherwise unlawful.

Finally, pushback against the number and inappropriate use of standardized tests is growing in number and strength. Superintendents from top school districts in Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia are working together to stop the testing craze. Montgomery County superintendent Joshua Starr has called for a three-year moratorium, and Charlotte-Mecklenberg's Heath Morrison says, "We can teach our way to the top, but we cannot test our way to the top."

Meanwhile, Students First state report cards, which Michelle Rhee launched with great fanfare on January 7, have drawn the derision they deserve not only from the Schott Foundation's Opportunity to Learn campaign and from the Economic Policy Institute, but from California's chief deputy superintendent Richard Zeiger, who declared his state's F rating a "badge of honor." He's absolutely right: protecting already large classes from further expansion, improving the quality of early childhood programs, and refusing to allow state budget concerns to strip future generations of children of educational potential are much more important than hewing to a narrow, market-oriented set of "reforms" (such as, for example, removing all caps on class size, and demanding test-based teacher evaluations).

Like the agenda the president set out in his inaugural speech, the degree to which this promising trend toward a more holistic view of education policy flourishes depends on our collective momentum. Join the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, and help make Obama's second term a great one!