Obama’s Do-It-Yourself Approach Turns to Education

As with practically every other area of policy, the president isn’t waiting for Congress anymore.

President Barack Obama speaks on the economy at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina on January 15, 2014.
National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Jan. 23, 2014, 11:27 a.m.

With the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, par­tic­u­larly con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, re­luct­ant to put much money in­to edu­ca­tion ini­ti­at­ives, Pres­id­ent Obama is go­ing it alone to en­act re­forms.

A Fox News edu­ca­tion ed­it­or­i­al pub­lished Wed­nes­day by House Speak­er John Boehner hints at why. In his op-ed, “Why School Choice Opens a Door to the Amer­ic­an Dream,” Boehner praised private and charter schools as the big edu­ca­tion­al equal­izer. “When par­ents have the abil­ity to se­lect the best learn­ing en­vir­on­ment for their kids, they thrive and so do their com­munit­ies,” he wrote ahead of Na­tion­al School Choice Week.

Un­able to get much done in Con­gress, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is tak­ing its edu­ca­tion agenda straight to uni­versity pres­id­ents, found­a­tion heads, and the me­dia. And that’s why I was in­vited to the White House last week to listen to seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials tout their re­cent brokered deals with around 100 col­lege pres­id­ents who’ve pledged to ex­pand high­er-edu­ca­tion op­por­tun­it­ies for low-in­come and minor­ity stu­dents. (Yes, I’m do­ing more or less what they wanted — telling you about it. But the ini­ti­at­ive is sig­ni­fic­ant be­cause it’s an ac­tion­able re­sponse to a long-pop­u­lar yet largely un­ac­com­plished talk­ing point.)

The ef­fort, of­fi­cials at the brief­ing said, was de­signed to em­phas­ize areas where there’s an op­por­tun­ity to make a big im­pact even without Con­gres­sion­al le­gis­la­tion. They spoke of re­du­cing in­equal­it­ies in ad­vising and test pre­par­a­tion, of strength­en­ing re­medi­ation to sup­port stu­dent suc­cess at col­lege, and of help­ing stu­dents ac­cess in­form­a­tion about schol­ar­ships. They also de­scribed waiv­ing fees that keep low-in­come stu­dents from ap­ply­ing to mul­tiple schools, something middle-class kids do without think­ing.

All of these con­crete ac­tions, meant to fur­ther eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity and help close the op­por­tun­ity gap, will go in­to ef­fect without Con­gress passing a bill.

“In a per­fect world, we’d be in­vest­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions more,” one of the of­fi­cials said at the brief­ing. “That’s not the hand we’ve been dealt. So you either cry about that, or you just get to work.”

Edu­ca­tion was a fa­vor­ite talk­ing point for can­did­ate Obama, but re­form hasn’t been easy. In 2008, Obama cam­paigned on re­writ­ing the un­pop­u­lar No Child Left Be­hind law but he couldn’t do it without Con­gress, which nev­er got its act to­geth­er to re­write the act. His sig­na­ture re­form, Race to the Top, a $4.35 bil­lion ini­ti­at­ive cre­ated to spur in­nov­a­tion and re­forms in K-12 edu­ca­tion, was passed as part of the Amer­ic­an Re­cov­ery and Re­in­vest­ment Act in 2009 — be­fore Re­pub­lic­ans re­gained con­trol of the House.

The White House’s do-it-your­self ap­proach to policy im­ple­ment­a­tion has been well doc­u­mented in Obama’s second term. It’s ob­serv­able in im­mig­ra­tion policy, where the pres­id­ent uni­lat­er­ally gran­ted un­doc­u­mented chil­dren brought to Amer­ica il­leg­ally by their par­ents the right to stay, as well as in cli­mate policy, where he used ex­ec­ut­ive powers to fas­ti­di­ously reg­u­late the in­dustry that spews the most green­house gas in­to the air. On health care and guns, two of the more polit­ic­ally di­vis­ive is­sues of his pres­id­ency, the pres­id­ent used ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity to en­act policies he spe­cific­ally tried and failed to get through Con­gress.

A former con­sti­tu­tion­al law pro­fess­or, Obama has said he didn’t want to go around Con­gress but that the le­gis­lature’s re­fus­al to ne­go­ti­ate on everything from hous­ing re­form to gov­ern­ment fund­ing and the debt lim­it has forced him to look else­where.

“It’s got­ten so bad that the pres­id­ent feels com­pelled to act with ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity, and is do­ing so without com­punc­tion,” said Paul Bled­soe, a former Clin­ton White House cli­mate ad­viser, told Na­tion­al Journ­al this fall. “In the first term, he did so with re­luct­ance. Now he’s em­bra­cing it.”

This new push on edu­ca­tion is a vari­ation on that theme, re­ly­ing on edu­ca­tion­al lead­ers around the coun­try in­stead of elec­ted of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton. Still, as Ron­ald Brown­stein wrote re­cently, there’s no sil­ver bul­let to close the op­por­tun­ity gap and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tions last week, while well re­ceived, are not enough.

“The White House con­fer­ence shined a use­ful spot­light,” wrote Brown­stein of the ef­fort, “but many forces must be re­versed for high­er edu­ca­tion to truly ex­pand op­por­tun­ity: rising costs; the shift in pub­lic uni­versity fund­ing from tax­pay­ers to par­ents; re­stric­tions on af­firm­at­ive ac­tion; and the trend of col­leges re­dir­ect­ing their schol­ar­ship dol­lars from needy fam­il­ies to­ward aca­dem­ic stars in­ten­ded to raise their na­tion­al rank­ings.”

Look for more of that in the realm of edu­ca­tion these next two years, but don’t count on it com­ing from Con­gress.

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