The Election was Easy: Now the Hard Part

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

It’s been quite a week. While I harbor in the confines of the Dallas Sheraton Hotel, within a city that does not exactly embody the tenets of the Democratic Party, I reflect on “the week that was.” And it is one for the record books.

Barely three days after the fact, with the initial euphoria tamped down by the sheer realities that this president-elect, Barack Obama, has to handle some really tough and complex issues over the next six months (like the economy and the war, to name two), we are left wondering what the next few years will bring.

Truth be told, and although Obama has made a statement since the election that education is a priority, including claims made today in the Washington Post to revamp NCLB, education is barely on the agenda. Nor should it be, considering. The economy is trumping all conversations. Six months ago, it was the war. But let’s face it: we’ve never seen anything, at least in our lifetimes and probably through those of our parents, like the current turmoil in the markets. Money matters, and there doesn’t seem to be any. Unless, of course, you want a bailout. We have enough for that. We surely don’t have money for education, for health care, for roads and infrastructure, and there won’t be any for a long, long time.

This morning, a new jobs report came out showing the 11th straight month of job losses. The numbers are, well, numbing. We’ve got quite a problem in the US, which can be infectious for the rest of the world.

Will Barack Obama come to the rescue? Will he save the USA and the world of the global economic crisis, contain the Iraq and Afghanastanian wars, and bring world peace (because Donald Trump and the Miss Universe competition want to know!)?

The political reality is that the economy will improve over the next few years, the wars will end or improve (OK, I know I’m on loose ground there), but we won’t have world peace. How incredible, though, has been the response from the world about this election. I heard a commentary on CNN that suggested that there exists an almost post-911 feeling around the globe, with the world pulling for the US to succeed. And I agree. It does feel that way. But that doesn’t make it happen.

Education, however, is on the outside, even though Obama promises to make it a focus. I, personally, have Linda Darling-Hammond pigeon-holed for Secretary of Education, since she is his prime advisor. That stated, she would be a poor choice. She is, first and foremost, a researcher, not a politico. So let’s kill that one right here and now. Of all the names put on the table (see the Post today), the one I like is Colin Powell. Apparently, he isn’t up for Secretary of State (which seemed natural). Could you imagine the focus that Powell would bring to Maryland Avenue in Washington, DC? I don’t think education would be a backburner issue anymore. The possibilities boggle the mind.

Hopefully, the Obama Administration will move swiftly (and it sure looks likely that they will) on appointments. The Bush Administration did a brutal job of staffing the Education Department. They got Rod Paige on (sorry, a not-so-good choice; he should have picked Spellings from the start) quickly, but some undersecretary appointments took well over a year to make. We can’t do federal business that way. The appointments need to happen relatively quickly so the work of the government can be done.

Once the Secretary comes in, the budget will dictate what transpires. Obama has said he wants to pump $18 billion into education. But today, he literally promised a new tax stimulus to help the economy. Quite simply, there isn’t enough money to go around. If he makes the hard choices, he will reduce the size of the military, which saw massive increases (about 75 percent) during the Bush Administration. But we have two wars going on, and reducing those funds will be difficult. In truth, $18 billion isn’t a lot of money in a federal budget. It’s enough for Pell Grants, but it isn’t a lot when you consider what we spend on other items, especially Defense. Getting blood from a turnip is difficult; almost like putting lipstick on a pig.

The Republicans believe that government should be small and targeted. Bill Bennett and others have argued that perhaps there should not be a federal Department of Education. In the next few years, they may get part of their wish. Many government departments, including ED (for Washington outsiders, we just call it “ED”), may shrink necessarily over the next few years. I’m not so sure that would be a bad thing. Perhaps ED is too big. Perhaps we should jettison some of the programs and operations that states should, in reality, be taking care of. I’m a supporter of TRIO and GEAR UP programs, but should the states and the colleges not be doing this work? I get why we need to have the federal government leading IDEA and similar initiatives, but perhaps we’ve gone into areas that we just shouldn’t be. These are debates that we should have, because somewhere, somehow, we need to cut federal spending, because the current President was unable to do so.

President-elect Barack Obama has a difficult road ahead. But there is hope in the air, and perhaps he can meet the challenge. That is what hope is about.

Please join us on January 27-28, 2009, in Washington, DC for our Policy Summit to talk about thes issues at the NATIONAL CAPITOL SUMMIT: Education and the New Administration. We’ll be talkingabout early childhood education, secondary education, teacher education, college access and opportunity, and financial aid over two days. On behalf of our partner, the Council of State Government, I hope you’ll join us.

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