Preparing the future workforce will be arguably the next president’s most far-reaching task, as the United States adapts to a competitive global economy and a fast-evolving employment market. Over the next four years, effective education and job-training policies from the White House could have a large multiplier effect on long-term growth and stability. Economists are predicting a market demand for skilled workers that, if fulfilled by Americans, would shave a few points off the unemployment rate.
The depressing part of the story is that the American workforce is far from ready to meet the employment demand. Dozens of barriers block U.S. workers from filling the high-paying jobs that are already available. Some of those barriers are specific to today’s fragile economy. Because many homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, it may be hard for job seekers to pick up and move from a depressed area to a faster-growing one. And employers, still fearful that revenues could dry up, tend to leave jobs unfilled rather than add workers to their payrolls.
But most hiring barriers are the direct result of systemic inequities in American education. Public schools in high-poverty areas do little to ready students for college or jobs, for example. A high school dropout who then gets a GED diploma and takes a few community-college classes won’t be at the top of the list for most job openings.
Political candidates who proclaim that education is important might as well say that potato chips taste good and candlesticks make nice wedding gifts. They can utter such pleasantries in a hundred different ways while shedding little light on their actual agenda. President Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, both speak eloquently about the need to prepare workers for tomorrow’s jobs, which will require more education and technical training than was necessary for any previous workforce. They eerily echo one another’s rhetoric, decrying the “crisis” in education and stressing the need for students to enter and finish college.
But Obama and Romney have broad philosophical differences about how we should prepare the next generation of American workers. It comes down to this: Romney would rely more on markets to effect change; Obama would rely more on government.
Obama has prominently displayed his pro-government cards by devoting tremendous effort to shoring up federal programs designed to get more education to more people. Back in 2009, he funneled nearly $100 billion in economic-stimulus funds into education. Since then, he has battled Congress to maintain education programs, facing tight budget constraints backed by Republicans who want to shrink the size of government. Obama has fought to maintain Pell Grants, which provide low-income students access to postsecondary eduction, and has so far shielded the Education Department from the most draconian cuts. He is also comfortable using a carrot-and-stick approach to nudge states and communities toward his educational goals. He has dangled the promise of extra federal money to encourage state officials to adopt common achievement standards and to turn around failing schools.
Romney had little to say about education until May, when he unveiled a bold plan heavily reliant on school choice. The most radical piece of the plan would require states to give disadvantaged students open enrollment to all schools—public and private. He hasn’t said much about it since then.
Romney’s plan includes more federal involvement in school districts than some of his comments seemed to indicate. He has pledged to make the Education Department “a heck of a lot smaller” and declared that Washington should distance itself from education. But his statewide-choice idea relies on federal money, turning the localized funding model for public schools on its head. The plan suggests that Romney may not be as committed as other Republicans to getting the federal government out of public schools. He said in unveiling his plan, “For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school, where permitted.”
College is the ultimate goal for today’s students if they are to form the backbone of a skilled workforce. Yet many low-income and, increasingly, middle-income students don’t get that far. Four-year universities are out of reach for them in terms of both price and scholastic achievement. Many high school graduates who make it to a community college or certificate-training program require catch-up courses. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a close friend of Obama’s, has spent much of his time in Washington hammering on public high schools with low graduation rates, using every federal tool at his disposal to lean on these so-called dropout factories.
Obama has made it clear that he has no patience for low-performing elementary and secondary schools, particularly if they continue to fail their students year in and year out with no consequences. The president and his deputies frequently cite his Race to the Top competitive grant program as the White House’s most successful domestic initiative because it pulls states toward dramatic school reforms with the promise of a little extra funding. It’s true that the grant program has had an impact. Since its inception, 45 states have signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an administration priority. Forty states and the District of Columbia applied for the grants, which put them on a path to major school reforms even if they didn’t win any money.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.