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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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What might President Barack Obama’s second term mean for education? In short: four more years. Education Secretary Arne Duncan—a member of Obama’s Chicago circle, with whom the president played basketball on Election Day—has indicated he would like to stay in his job, and Obama’s campaign trumpeting of education policies such as Race to the Top show the administration’s aggressive approach to competitive grant programs, meant to cajole states and districts into embracing favored reform strategies, will likely continue.

Early learning advocates will be pleased programs such as Head Start are less likely to be severely cut with a Democratic Senate and White House to help safeguard them. And the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education now have the chance to continue to forge needed links between their agencies. But those who thought Obama’s early education policies were “too little too late” might remain disappointed. The president made almost no effort to outline a plan for early learning during this campaign, especially compared to the promises of 2008, and has not specifically indicated what he proposes to do for the youngest learners. That said, there are murmurs from Obama insiders that a broad-spectrum approach to early childhood education, including the often-forgotten early grades (K-3) of elementary school, could emerge as a theme in the second term. A Tuesday night press release from the nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, hinted at a desire to hold the president accountable for making headway on early childhood investments. “Throughout the campaign,” the statement said, “the president pledged to invest in education—especially in early childhood education—and to make higher education more affordable.” 

We see at least two big education stories that could emerge during Obama’s second term. First, a divided Congress could take up reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This would likely lead to a battle over what the federal government’s role in education should be, and whether competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top—which significantly expanded Duncan’s power as education secretary, and have have earned praise from both Republicans and Democrats—should be incorporated into the next ESEA, potentially becoming more permanent fixtures of federal education law. In the second scenario, Congress is too divided to reauthorize ESEA, and NCLB waivers granted by the Obama administration become the main lever ushering in new education policies in many states, on issues such as teacher accountability and the implementation of the Common Core curriculum standards. The waivers allowed thus far, however, do not do much to encourage expanding access to early learning, nor do they provide new funding for big efforts like investing in early childhood interventions in health, nutrition or education.

Below are some of our biggest questions with regard to federal early learning policy during the next four years. We’d love to hear your own questions and speculations in the comments section below.

Congress has less than two months to resolve impending across-the-board spending cuts. How will the president prioritize early education as legislators and the White House embark on negotiations? Across-the-board spending cuts (“sequestration”) totaling 8.2 percent for most federal education programs were written into law last year by Congress, as a failsafe against their own deficit reduction efforts. Legislators did not meet their budget-cutting goals, and sequestration is now a real possibility. But early education programs can not afford to lose 8.2 percent of their funding. The president said in the final debate that sequestration “will not happen,” but how will he work with Congress to ensure that it won’t? What will be the cost of preventing sequestration -- more budget cuts? And if sequestration does happen, will the president work to protect critical investments in early education?

Will the president push Congress to reauthorize the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant? CCDBG, for which Congress appropriates more than $2.2 billion annually in child care subsidies for low-income families (plus nearly $3 billion in mandatory funding), has not been reauthorized in 16 years. The president said in his victory speech last night, “America, I believe we can build on the progress we've made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class.” But today high-quality child care can cost more than college, and without affordable child care, many parents struggle to even afford to work outside the home. We are looking to see whether the president incorporates affordable child care into his top second-term priority: job creation.

How will Race to the Top and other signature grant programs evolve? There is little doubt the Obama administration will aim to continue the president’s signature education programs: Race to the Top (K-12, the Early Learning Challenge and possibly the new district-level version), Investing in Innovation (also known as i3) and Promise Neighborhoods. The president touted the success of Race to the Top on the campaign trail, commending states for adopting higher standards and tying teacher and principal evaluation to student achievement. And the competitive Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) grant programs are even more likely to continue, especially given the reduced threat of the repeal of Obamacare, which authorized and secured their funding for many years to come.

Each of these programs has touched early education to some extent, most significantly through the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which provided $500 million to states that embraced strategies to improve early learning and better measure early education programs’ effectiveness and outcomes. Should there be future rounds of Race to the Top, i3 and Promise Neighborhoods, we hope they expand the focus on early learning. Continuing these programs will depend on available funding from Congress. The first rounds of Race to the Top and i3 received significant funding under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; $4 billion and $650 million respectively. Subsequent rounds have been funded at significantly lower levels and it is likely this trend will continue. (See our comments on sequestration, above, for why.) Nevertheless, these are programs the administration will surely push to support, as are the reforms that Race to the Top and the NCLB waiver process goaded states to put into place, including adopting higher college-and-career-ready standards, evolving teacher evaluation systems to include student growth as a measure of teacher performance for all teachers and implementing plans to turnaround states’ lowest-performing schools. We don’t expect any of these priorities to recede.

What will happen to Head Start? The Obama administration will have four more years to carry out and cement its Head Start recompetition policy, one of the major reforms mandated by the program’s 2007 reauthorization. With significant leadership from the administration, Head Start providers that failed to meet certain quality measures must now compete with new providers for federal grants. Advocates hope recompetition will help increase the quality of Head Start, and it is a good thing for both supporters and skeptics of Head Start that the program will have the time and continuity it needs to actually carry out the new policies in full and see if they work. 

We don’t expect major changes to President Obama’s overall orientation on education, which could be described as a data-driven approach to raising the quality of schools and teachers, while using the carrot of federal dollars to encourage states and districts to scale up promising reform strategies that, until 2009, had been tried mostly at the local level. We see two major X-factors in federal education policy over the next four years: First, whether and how ESEA/NCLB is reauthorized, and second, what funding levels will be for the broad array of education programs that rely on dollars from Washington. 

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