Mr. Obama’s first term started with a bang, when Congress in 2009 passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included some $100 billion for education, including nearly $50 billion to save teachers’ jobs and $3 billion to turn around the lowest-performing schools. The funding, part of a larger effort to stimulate the recession-ravaged economy, also created several competitive-grant programs, such as Race to the Top, which helped push states to adopt rigorous standards, overhaul teacher evaluation, and expand charter schools.
The president touted those accomplishments on the campaign trail this fall.
“We launched a national competition to improve all our schools,” he said at an Aug. 22 campaign stop in Las Vegas. “We put more money into it, but we also demanded reform. We want teachers to be paid better and treated like the professionals that they are. But we’re also demanding more accountability, including the ability of school districts to replace teachers that aren’t cutting it.”
Still, the stimulus package faced a major political backlash, contributing to Democrats’ loss of control of the House in 2010. After that, the administration was unable to prod Congress to pass a long-overdue reauthorization of the current version of the ESEA: the much-debated No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, Mr. Obama last year announced a waiver program giving states temporary running room in meeting key mandates of the legislation, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2002. So far, 36 applications have been approved.
Even before Inauguration Day, Mr. Obama must work with Congress to head off the looming across-the-board cuts, called “sequestration,” that are set to hit every federal agency, including the U.S. Department of Education, early next year unless Congress acts to avert them.
According to estimates from the White House Office of Management and Budget, such Education Department programs as Title I aid to the states for disadvantaged students and support for special education could be cut by 8.2 percent.
President Obama also will have to work with lawmakers to fix a yawning shortfall in the Pell Grant program for low-income college students and cope with a planned spike in interest rates on student loans.
The budget squeeze may spell trouble for Mr. Obama’s signature programs, including Race to the Top, and the nearly $150 million Investing in Innovation program, or i3, which aims to scale up promising practices at the school district level. House Republicans have sought to eliminate those programs.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former Chicago schools chief whom Mr. Obama tapped for his Cabinet four years ago, has said he would stay on in a second Obama term. Mr. Duncan has been commended from across the political aisle—including by the defeated GOP nominee, Mr. Romney—for his performance as secretary. But he also has attracted criticism from some educators for embracing ideas such as tying teacher evaluations to student test scores and expanding charter schools.
Assuming he does remain at the helm of the Education Department, Mr. Duncan will continue to oversee implementation of the NCLB waivers and will decide how—and whether—states can make changes to their plans. And by the end of the year, he will be overseeing distribution of $400 million in Race to the Top grants to districts that agree to try an individualized approach to learning.
Both teachers’ unions—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—quickly put out statements congratulating Mr. Obama on his victory and making it clear that they think teacher support helped put him over the finish line.
“From day one, NEA members have supported President Obama and his vision for America and public education,” said Dennis Van Roekel, the president of NEA, in a statement. “And over the past two years, they worked tirelessly on behalf of America’s public school children.”
"Thousands upon thousands of our members made phone calls, knocked on doors, and reached out in every way they could to get their families, friends, and neighbors to the polls on Election Day—an effort that contributed not only to President Obama’s re-election, but also to victories in key Senate, House, and gubernatorial races across the country," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, in a statement.
While the unions appreciate Mr. Obama’s work in steering funding to save educator jobs, many teachers have criticized the administration for pushing states to link educator evaluations to student test scores and expand charter schools.