The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) hosted a panel discussion of the education policies of the Obama administration. Panel members included Alice Johnson Cain, the education director for the Hope Street Group, Kevin Carey, the policy director at Education Sector, Frederick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at AEI, Mark Schneider, the former commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, and Andy Smarick, a visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and adjunct fellow at AEI. Research fellow Andrew Kelly acted as moderator for the discussion.
As the first bill that President Obama passed, the stimulus bill affected all parts of American life, including education. As the panel considered the pros and the cons of the sweeping legislation and its effect on education reform, Andy Smarick noted that some of the key mistakes of the administration were that of the 75 billion dollars spent on education reform, only about five billion was used to actually reform. The remaining money went to shoring up the problematic status quo. His comment was readily debated by Kevin Carey who noted that the stimulus was designed to prevent job loss, not create the reforms that Smarick was looking for. Alice Johnson Cain agreed with Carey, noting that “the strategy was very clear . . . [focused] primarily around saving jobs.” However, Rick Hess noted that the stimulus package simply encouraged reckless spending. He also pointed out that the program was not sold as “just for jobs.” Smarick agreed, protesting, “We were sold a bill of goods.” However, Carey merely demurred that “if the department oversold it, then they oversold it,” however, he argued that the bill was passed and it was proven effective.
Another aspect of the stimulus package that the panel considered was the 4.35 billion dollars set aside for the Race to the Top initiative. While the whole panel appreciated the thoughts and efforts that went into the Race to the Top program, both Smarick and Hess were skeptical. Smarick noted that “changes in policy aren’t the same as changes on the ground” while Hess voiced concerns on the method chosen by the Education department for school selection. He pointed out that “it’s easy to rally when you’re asking for money” but feared that the results would dissipate once the winners and losers were decided. However, Cain was more positive in her review of the program. She argued that the comprehensive approach was correct and that while it may be too early to laud the Race to the Top as an unmitigated success, there have been signs which give hope for the future.
In addition to the stimulus bill and Race to the Top, the administration has also made historic steps towards a nationalized higher education policy. While the administration’s solutions to the low college completion rate may not be the panacea that the problem needs, the panel agreed that at least the issue is being addressed. Schneider noted that “He’s [President Obama] linked higher education to job creation.” Which is problematic considering the disconnect between the faculty at higher education institutions who believe that the students are there to gain an education and the parents and students who want the education with the final purpose of finding employment. In addition, there is insufficient research into whether community colleges or career institutions would be a better way to accomplish the goals of the administration. As Carey noted, The U.S. has “never had a higher education policy on the national level.”
As the panel concluded their presentation, each was asked to assign a grade to the administration’s first year. The grades from highest to lowest were:
- A (Alice Johnson Cain)
- This grade was earned for putting partisan political ideas aside and putting the kids first. She urged, “hold firm and keep the bar high.”
- A- (Kevin Carey)
- This was given in anticipation of future good things.
- B/B+ (Andy Smarick)
- They’ve done well, but the lack of action on DC Scholarship Program lowered the grade.
- Gentleman’s C (Rick Hess)
- These initiatives have been funded by money that was borrowed on the futures of the children.
- Incomplete/ A for effort (Mark Schneider)
- A lot of effort was made and a lot of things are being done. The grade won’t be assigned until the outcome is known.