Presidential History

Education and the State of the Union

In which Obama rests on his laurels and tells parents and 20-somethings to get their acts together


Barack Obama spent about 1,000 words of his 7,000-word State of the Union address on education, which might make you think this will be a big year for education reform.

But despite an abundance of words like "forward" and "progress," Obama mostly patted himself on the back for what he had already done for America's schoolkids, and then told parents to step it up ("Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done") and everyone else to get a teaching certificate ("to every young person listening tonight who's contemplating their career choice—become a teacher").

The president's primary boast about K-12 education was that "instead of just pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top." It would have been far more accurate to say: "In addition to pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top."

At $4.35 billion, Race to the Top spending barely touched the $500 billion spent on education at the federal, state, and local level. But by refusing to give states the money until after they actually made changes to the way they do business, Race to the Top did elicit a pretty big bang for the buck. The president said that "for less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning."

The grant application process pushed states to report out more information about teacher quality and lift caps on the number of charter schools, for instance, just in order to be eligible for the funds. And perhaps most important, the piles of cash were big enough and the rules specific enough that they finally gave state legislators, governors, and education bureaucracies sufficient incentive to risk ticking off teachers unions a little.

But those same unions remain a powerful force in how the other 99 percent of education money is spent. The amount used to incentivize states toward reform is dwarfed by the money pouring in to preserve the status quo. Last fall's $10 billion in grants to the states to protect education jobs demonstrated that a little old-style lobbying for handouts can have a much bigger, easier payout than making the case for hard fought reforms that piss off teachers unions.

Meanwhile, Obama mentioned education reauthorization only in the vaguest terms, urging Congress to "replace No Child Left Behind with a law that's more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids." No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on data collection and testing, is now thoroughly out of favor with pretty much everyone. Vague murmurs about a more robust way to measure teacher quality without relying exclusively on testing data are on the rise. But education funding is a partisan issue, thanks in large part to the massive donations of the major teachers unions to mostly Democratic candidates, and it will play out in a partisan way on the floors of the House and Senate. Everyone already says they know "what's best for our kids."

Obama also urged more college attendance using the same language of international competition that ran through the rest of the speech—"America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree." But he chose not to allude to the new, controversial Department of Education rules that would limit access to federal dollars by for-profit career colleges.  

Obama got one thing right, though, at least on the federal level: "Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation."  And that's the most depressing part. A program that doled out a measly $4 billion in chunks ranging from $75 million to $700 million probably is the biggest step we have taken toward school reform in a couple of decades. And it's not much.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

NEXT: So. About Those Medicare Cuts...

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  1. Caption Contest!

    “Mine is about the size of this one.”

    1. so wrong yet…

    2. “Jimmy, have you every been in a Presidential locker room?”

      1. Monkey see…
        Monkey do.

        Yeah, I went there.


          1. 17 minutes? Much longer than anticipated.

            1. I slapped my forehead as soon as you posted it, if that helps.

  2. Editor’s Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil…

    Is this new? I can’t help but feel partially responsible.

    But can we get clarification on civil, please? After all, this is the New Era of Civility.

    -Senator Asshat, North Douchington

    1. Full-bore, hate-filled deep-dish-versus-thin-pizza debates are also permitted, apparently, regardless of whether pizza is a topic of the associated post.

    2. New Era of Civility = i really don’t like what YOU’RE saying so YOU shut up!

  3. alt-text:

    See, this one is from the Hindu Kush. You can tell because their hash is kind of blond-colored.

  4. Actually, the US doesn’t do that badly on education, if we’re comparing apples to apples.

    1. Actually, the US doesn’t do that badly on education, if we’re comparing apples to apples.

      Race-based measurement: The Factor That Dare Not Speak Its Name.

      1. Yeah, because black people aren’t real Americans, just sentient out of date farming equipment.

        1. yeah, but this farming equipment has voting rights…

  5. Oh! To be told to get your act together by a sack of shit with big ears.

  6. Soooo tired of politicians talkin’ about children. It sickens me really. So much cool shit outlawed because of kids. Think about the real reality of the situation. Life expectancy in the U.S is 78 years of age. You are legally an adult by the age of 18. That means you are only a “child” for 23% of your life. If you were like me, the percentage is a lot lower. Doesn’t it seem like we’re wasting a lot of time on children? why suffer for them?

  7. As for schools. Privatize them. I’m sure I’m not the only person that has said that.

    Sick of hearin’ this hippie bullshit about fairness and equality. “Oh no, if all the schools were private, then poor people wouldn’t get an education”

    Yeah.. and public education is so less stratified on class and race. You think schools in Montgomery county maryland are equal to the ones in the ghettos of chicago or detroit?

    Face the cold hard facts. Nobody really cares about equality or your fuckin’ worthless little brats’ education. All I want is for my thousand dollars a month I pay in taxes to go to the Chuck’s liquor fund aka my minifridge full of beer and my topshelf liquor collection.

    1. Classy and intelligent. You really outdid yourself.

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  10. Again, you should refrain from posting about education on a libertarian site, for fear that someone may come here and realize your whole plan for education is “do away with it” and “see what happens.”

    This is not a good way to get converts to your ideology.

    1. Who on Earth here said get rid of education?

      1. Poor Bastiat must be rolling over in his fucking grave.

  11. “limit access to federal dollars by for-profit career colleges.” What college is not for profit are the professors volunteering their time?

    1. sssshhhh!
      keep quiet or we’re gonna have another too big to fail moment…

  12. Criminal or Great Parent: Black Mother Jailed for Sending Daughters to White School……..

  13. Great article- I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to read an article writen from a libertarian/ fiscal conservative’s point of view that isn’t complete horse-shit. This was clear, to the point, and full of facts, and not opinion.

    As a fan of Obama, I still (maybe irrationally) believe that most of his failures as president come from battling with the mass of morons who currently make up our political system. I truly believe that if the Republican party would present a resonable, logical argument like Ms. Ward did above, we would ALL be better off.

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