And So This is Christmas…

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

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all. This time of year always provides us with an opportunity to slow down (ok, not always) and take stock of what we’ve witnessed or accomplished during the past twelve months.

In many ways, this has been a year less about education and more about nation building and politics. The year was ushered in by the promise of a new President, full of hope and promise. Less than a year later, we see a president who has lost much of his approval ratings, has promised another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, is losing the battle on health care, and has, at least until this point today, been unable to budge the world on climate change. It’s been a tough first year for President Obama.

In education, we started off on a down note, as former Senator Claiborne Pell passed away on New Year’s Day in Newport, Rhode Island. Not only did we lose a great man who brought so much to the poor and to the Arts, but we further sealed the door to a time when politics was politics; when the goal was not to shut down the opposition but to focus on the greater good of Americans, America, and the world beyond our doors. Those days seem long gone in this nation and we are unlikely to see them ever again.

As with the holiday season, this year was about giving and receiving. The federal government gave; the states took. The ARRA led most of the headlines, saving teacher jobs across the country and helping save states from not only a poor economy an incredible penchant for poor budgeting, poor decision-making, and poor stewardship. If you think politics are bad at the national level, take a look within your state: abyssmal at best. I was going to say that politicians didn’t start this economic downturn, but they did, actually. Many point back to Clinton’s restructuring of the loan apparatus to make it easier for low-income families to purchase homes. This led to derivatives and other Wall Street antics. There is plenty of blame to go around. I think it was all Bernie Madoff’s fault.

Even this week, the states are clamoring for ARRA “Race for the Top” money from the US Department of Education: a medieval smorgasbord of taxpayer funds to round up state and district budgets. It isn’t that this is necessarily a bad idea; it isn’t. But I do worry if any of this will result in permanent, move-forward change.

There was more focus on community colleges in 2009. But largely, not enough focus on education-at-large.

We didn’t make many strides in improving how we teach or how we learn. We didn’t do much to reduce the gaps between the haves and the havenots, although, to be fair, we did see increased Pell grants. But even the Pell projections are scary over the next few years. We didn’t do anything to curtail the costs of higher education. Institutions have neglected their responsiblity to reduce the cost of providing a world-class education. I didn’t say this is easy work, but it is work that must be done. I’d really like to see some university Presidents step up to the plate and take this on in 2010.

Thus, by the end of the year, everyone is taking a deep breath because we don’t know if this was the better year or the worse year, education budget-wise. Unfortunately, I think it is has been the former rather than the latter. Next year state budgets will be crushed; the federal government will remain in such red ink that it will be difficult to do much of anything. And the mid-term elections next November will show a dramatic swing back toward the Republicans in the House and Senate.

On the positive, at least we have each other. We know of the talent that abounds in the US. The great teachers and administrators in our schools, the faculty and staff at our colleges and universities, the support staff to help all those with disabilities and other issues prosper in our education system. And those at the state and federal level who work diligently to make things better. Perhaps we aren’t where we need to be, but it isn’t because of lack of talent or heart. We just need to keep on keepin’ on.

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