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YES HE WILL?: Campaign Details Suggest That Obama Presidency Will Make Education Reform a High Priority

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“We’ve got to fix our energy policy that’s giving our wealth away,” Obama said. “We’ve got to fix our health care system and we’ve got to invest in our education system for every young person to be able to learn.”

Our kids and our country can’t afford four more years of neglect and indifference. At this defining moment in our history, America faces few more urgent challenges than preparing our children to compete in a global economy. The decisions our leaders make about education in the coming years will shape our future for generations to come. They will help determine not only whether our children have the chance to fulfill their God-given potential, or whether our workers have the chance to build a better life for their families, but whether we, as a nation, will remain in the 21st century the kind of global economic leader that we were in the 20th century.
                                                                                                                                                           – Barack Obama, September 9, 2008, Dayton, Ohio

Throughout his campaign for president, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) stressed the importance of education to the future of the nation, consistently listing it, along with health care and energy independence, as among his top three priorities. However, the bigger question is not whether Obama will focus on education reform, but when he will be able to do so, especially given the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room that is the American economy. Since his September 9 speech in Ohio, the nation has seen a more than $100 billion bailout of the American International Group (AIG), a $700 billion rescue plan for the financial markets, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average lose more than 25 percent of its value.

But perhaps education reform could be a part of his plan to deal with the economic challenges that the nation faces. In the last presidential debate on October 14, Obama outlined actions that he would take to boost the fundamentals of the economy and help the middle class, listing jobs, tax cuts, and help for homeowners. But he also listed some “long-term challenges” in the economy that must be dealt with. “We’ve got to fix our energy policy that’s giving our wealth away,” Obama said. “We’ve got to fix our health care system and we’ve got to invest in our education system for every young person to be able to learn.”

The long-term benefit that improving education can have on the American economy was a theme that Obama articulated during the entirety of his campaign. It was also a big part of his “Plan for Lifetime Success Through Education,” which is posted on Obama’s campaign website. “Investing in early learning also makes economic sense,” the plan reads. “For every one dollar invested in high quality, comprehensive programs supporting children and families from birth, there is a $7–$10 return to society in decreased need for special education services, higher graduation and employment rates, less crime, less use of the public welfare system, and better health.”

To that end, Obama said he would spend $10 billion a year on a comprehensive “Zero to Five” plan that would provide critical supports to young children and their parents. According to Obama’s website, such a plan would quadruple the number of eligible children for Early Head Start, increase Head Start funding, and improve quality for both. It would also work to ensure that all children have access to preschool and “provide affordable and high-quality child care that will promote child development and ease the burden on working families.”

Obama’s education plan would also work to increase the high school graduation rate by focusing on the middle grades. “The dropout problem begins well before high school,” the plan reads. “The middle grades (grades 5, 6, 7, 8) are a crucial, but often overlooked, segment of the educational pipeline. Middle school students must gain skills in reading, mathematics, and other subjects to be successful in the rigorous high school coursework that follows. … Without effective interventions and supports, at-risk sixth-grade students are at risk of becoming tenth-grade dropouts.”

Obama’s plan for reforming middle schools reflects the Success in the Middle Act, which he introduced in the Senate in 2007. The act, which was not passed in the 110th Congress but is expected to be reintroduced for consideration when the 111th Congress convenes next year, targets middle schools that feed into the nearly two thousand “dropout factories” across the country. Dropout factories are high schools in which 60 percent (or fewer) of freshmen will have become seniors three years after finishing their ninth-grade year. The legislation would require states to develop early-warning data systems to identify students who are most at risk of dropping out and intervene to help them succeed. It would also invest in strategies that have been proven to improve student achievement such as professional development and coaching for teachers and school leaders, and supports for students such as personal academic plans, intensive reading and math instruction, and extended learning time.

As the Alliance for Excellent Education has pointed out, reducing the number of students who drop out of high school can also provide a long-term benefit to the nation’s fiscal well-being. In fact, had the more than 1.2 million students who dropped out from the Class of 2008 earned the diplomas with their classmates, the nation would see approximately $319 billion in increased wages over the course of their lifetimes. Simply cutting the graduation rate in half would benefit federal taxpayers with $45 billion in new tax revenues or savings.

During his presidential campaign, Obama also focused on improving the quality of teachers, expanding college access, and improving the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In total, Obama expects his early education and K–12 plan to cost about $18 billion per year. According to his website, he will pay for the plan by “reforming and reducing earmark spending, reforming federal contracting procedures, using purchase cards and the negotiating power of the government to reduce costs of standardized procurement, auctioning surplus federal property, and reducing the erroneous payments identified by the Government Accountability Office, and closing the CEO pay deductibility loophole.”

With Democrats’ expanded majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, many of Obama’s education proposals should receive a favorable reception. However, there are potential roadblocks looming in both chambers. In the Senate, Democrats will likely fall a couple of seats short of a sixty-seat filibuster-proof majority, meaning that some support from Republicans will be necessary to pass legislation. In the House, a wild card could emerge in the form of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of more than fifty fiscally conservative Democrats (about one fifth of the Democratic caucus) who may want to curb a federal budget deficit that some have projected will grow to $1 trillion in 2010.

To read a transcript or watch a video of Barack Obama’s September 9 speech in Dayton, Ohio, visithttp://www.barackobama.com/2008/09/09/remarks_of_senator_barack_obam_111.php.

Read more about Barack Obama’s education plan at http://www.barackobama.com/issues/education/.

1) As of press time, Democrats were losing Senate races in Georgia and Minnesota, but winning in Alaska.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.