Obama administration commitment backed by dollars

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When President Barack Obama campaigned on his platform of “change,” he promised that if elected he would make a “truly historic commitment to education.”

In his first month on the job, Obama did in fact take an unprecedented step – signing a $787 billion economic stimulus bill that includes a two-year infusion of some $100 billion for education. This is nearly double the U.S. Department of Education’s entire discretionary budget for fiscal year 2009, which totals $59.2 billion.

Loaded with dollars to fund everything from teacher quality to technology for classrooms, the package will help school districts avert layoffs through a $53.6 billion state fiscal-stabilization fund. It will also dole out $13 billion in new money for Title I programs for disadvantaged students and $12 billion for state grants for special education.

The package addresses a number of the president’s stated early childhood priorities, which include Head Start, access to affordable, high-quality child care, and a comprehensive “Zero to Five” plan, emphasizing early care and education for infants to prepare them for kindergarten.

The legislation also provides substantial new funding to students and families for higher education in the form of increased Pell grants for low-income students and expanded tax credits for college costs.

Former Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan is Obama’s new Secretary of Education. Duncan will direct the disbursement of a massive $5 billion in “innovation” and “incentive” grants from the stabilization fund to encourage states to raise standards and reward them for addressing achievement gaps.

The new administration plans a number of efforts in K-12 education – outlined on the White House Web site – including support for recruitment and retention of quality and accredited teachers, expansion of high-quality afterschool programs, support for English language learners, and the creation of more successful charter schools.

A top agenda item is the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which requires states to rate schools based on annual testing. Critics have blasted the law for inadequate funding and for turning schools into test-prep factories that target reading and math at the exclusion of such subjects as art, physical education, and music.

In an interview on NCLB’s seventh anniversary, District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said she supports “the concept” of the law. “I actually hope that it does get re-authorized,” she said.

While she has differences with aspects of it, she said she doesn’t think the law compels districts to decimate art and music programs. “You don’t have to get rid of them and then replace it with just teaching to the test,” she said.

Obama says he wants to make the law less punitive. Duncan plans to tour the country to talk with school officials and families about ways to improve NCLB, and is even considering renaming the law. He said he hopes Congress will reauthorize the measure by late in the year.