The Intersection: Jan 2014

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The “my way or the highway” tone of the State of the Union may have surprised some, but it’s been the modus operandi at the Department of Education for five years. Secretary Arne Duncan has been among the most visible of the President’s Cabinet and an activist in terms of setting policy, employing any and all the tools afforded to the Executive Branch. Given his darling status within the Administration, it’s frankly a surprise Duncan wasn’t and has never been the Cabinet member asked to stay home in the event of a catastrophic event.

After an opening shout-out heralding the highest high school graduation rates in three decades, the President didn’t return to education issues until nearly half way through his remarks.  Despite the “year of action” rhetorical theme, Obama didn’t seem to think there was much purpose in devoting significant sound bites to education.

The bitter partisan divide in Congress is expected to continue stalling any major legislative action to reauthorize key laws – with the possible exception of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.

In fact, the most significant education policy to come out of Congress this year will likely be the budget deal cut in December and signed into law earlier this month, which restored funding for education programs like Head Start to their pre-sequester levels and, notably, established a new $250 million competitive grant initiative for preschool programs.

Underscoring the President’s subtly conveyed low expectations for legislative action, Obama signaled an intention to work with the business community, philanthropists and elected officials (apparently those in the states, not so much in Washington, D.C.) to pursue universal access to pre-Kindergarten. Add educators and even the media to this list (which we’ll assume was an oversight) and you have the formula that seems to be working with regard to reducing high school dropout rates.  So the President may be on to something here – a new way of shaping America’s education policy sans legislation.

So, besides Arne Duncan, who are the individuals and organizations leading the way forward?

Early Education

Inside the Beltway, observers say Helen Blank, Director of Child Care and Early Learning at the National Women’s Law Center has been a key proponent in pushing President Obama’s ambitious pre-K agenda and getting Washington influencers to recognize the value in its expansion. A respected veteran of the Clinton-era welfare reform days, Blank makes a compelling case for expanding access and increasing investments in high-quality early education.

The influence of that argument seemed to penetrate the most recent budget deal.  Of course, the special nod to pre-K was certainly helped by the fact that one of the leaders in the deal making, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), is herself a former pre-K teacher.  A member with growing influence in the upper chamber, holding seats on both the Senate Budget and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committees, she’s likely to continue being a player in education policy going forward – perhaps just not using the traditional Committee routes to achieve that purpose.

But with few discretionary dollars floating around Washington, the real action on early education is more likely to be in the states – making Governors the ones to watch. As Obama noted, 30 states have already begun moving in that direction on their own. And with numerous hotly contested races this November, candidates like incumbent New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will fall all over themselves to look good on education. Just last week, Cuomo offered up a blank check to Mayor Bill de Blasio to expand pre-K.


As with pre-K, the action on the K-12 front is being driven at the state level, which has the odd effect of both delighting and annoying strong proponents of federalism. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), who chairs the House Education Subcommittee on K-12 policy, called out the President for failing to even mention No Child Left Behind, which both Democrats and Republicans agree is long overdue for reauthorization.

But with little likelihood that the House and Senate Education Committees will agree on a way forward, Obama-Duncan will march forward with their own approach to rewarding states that are implementing reforms, particularly through adoption of the Common Core Standards.  It’s notable to remember that this most comprehensive education reform in decades, which is intended to raise student achievement expectations in basic subject like English and math, was developed not in Washington but in the states.

Once again the Governors and Chief State School Officers, also facing elections in many states, are the ones to watch.  Unlike the Members of Congress, who apparently can get away without finding compromise on bills long overdue for reauthorization, Governors and legislators in some states will have to tackle tough subjects like teacher accountability, state standards and testing.

Interestingly, education isn’t just the purview of the currently elected and the wannabes. Significant policy influencers come from the ranks of the “retired from public office, “such as former Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee and Governors Bob Wise of West Virginia and Jeb Bush of Florida.  All three are regular keynotes on the education circuit and are involved in leading reform movements in their home states as well as on the national stage.

The philanthropy sector, star players in the President’s education team, has been deeply involved in shaping significant reforms, including the Common Core State Standards, and developing tools for effective implementation. And Allan Golston at the Gates Foundation – a major engineer of the standards and the communications campaign to save it – has been elemental in bringing the business community to the game.   Last year Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobile, penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, writing: “The Common Core State Standards are the path to renewed competitiveness, and they deserve to be at the center of every state’s effort to improve the education—and future—of every American child.”

Also on the K-12 level, philanthropists are leading the way in the school choice movement which has swept the country. In late 2013, The Walton Family Foundation announced a $6 million grant aimed at doubling the number of students attending private schools with public funds by 2017.  Additionally, the foundation pledged $9 million over the next three years to launch 33 new charters in Phoenix, Denver, Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Washington, D.C.  Why wait for Congress or even locally elected officials to address the crisis in public schools when you can just build your own?

Higher Ed and Technical Education

Obama’s mention of increasing access to higher education was foreshadowed by a White House Summit with the unofficial policy makers he seems more comfortable working with than Capitol Hill:  university presidents, business and nonprofit leaders. On the guest list were Salman “Sal” Khan, founder of Khan Academy, the most popular educational video repository on the Internet, and Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor of The State University of New York and “Obama’s favorite college leader” according to Politico.

At the event, over 100 new commitments were made to address the college access and affordability crisis. Advocates like Kim Cook from the non-profit National College Access Network were also at the table and remain closely involved with the President’s National Economic Counsel as the conversation on what can be done short of Congressional action continues.

Once again, the philanthropy sector also rotates in as quarterback on the education policy team in higher education.  Former Domestic Policy Council education advisor Zakiya Smith serves as Strategy Director for Lumina Foundation (a VOX client), the nation’s largest private foundation focused solely on increasing Americans’ success in higher education. With over $1 billion in assets, Lumina aims to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality college degrees, certificates and credentials to 60 percent by 2025, known as Goal 2025. Recently named one of Forbes’ “30 under 30” leaders in education, Smith helped develop and design a financial aid shopping sheet currently being used in nearly 2,000 colleges that serve some 8 million undergraduate students. Smith’s work will undoubtedly come into play as the college affordability conversation continues in 2014.

As noted earlier, there is hope for some Congressional action on reauthorization of the Career and Technical Education Act. Expect IBM CEO Ginni Rometty to have some say in the reauthorization process. Under Rometty’s leadership, IBM has tested CTE innovation programs. U.S. Chamber President Thomas Donahue also signaled this as a priority of the business community in his “state of the union” earlier this year.

With all these heavy hitters addressing the country’s pressing education issues, Congress doesn’t feel the heat to take much action, and likely won’t.

Emily Brelage and Emily Helpern contributed significantly to this article.