On education policy, and what Obama left unsaid in the State of the Union

January 30, 2014

Every year reporters scour the State of the Union address for mentions of key government programs and for rhetorical flourishes that reveal emerging presidential priorities.

But in the case of education, what might be most significant this year is what President Obama left unsaid in his address Tuesday night. He didn’t call for Congress to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law, and he didn’t lambaste colleges for rising tuition.

No Child Left Behind, of course, is the legacy of Obama’s predecessor. Enacted under President George W. Bush within his first year in office, the education law calls for annual testing and school accountability. It has been due for a rewrite for several years. The last time Obama asked Congress to do so in a State of the Union was in his 2011 address. He called that year for a law “that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.”

That went nowhere. Obama has focused in the meantime on pushing his K-12 agenda through waivers of some of No Child Left Behind’s core provisions.

But has Obama given up on a rewrite in his second term?

Not quite, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. But he said it would require a bipartisan effort in Congress to work with the administration.

“We’re ready, able and willing — today, tomorrow, next week, next month, whenever,” Duncan told reporters Thursday at department headquarters. Of Congress, he said: “If they want to come together and start to behave in a more functional way, what better place to start than education?”

Further, Duncan said: “If there’s an appetite there, we could go into high gear literally overnight. . . . We have all kinds of ideas. . . . But we have to have a dance partner.”

Does it even matter if the law is rewritten?

“Yes, it does matter,” Duncan said. “All of us would prefer to fix the law and fix it for the country. That would be our strong preference. But you have to play the cards you’re dealt, not the cards you want. We’ll see.”

On higher education, Obama in his 2012 and 2013 addresses warned colleges that they must act to contain rising tuition.

In 2012, he said: “We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition. We’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.”

In 2013, the president said: “But taxpayers can’t keep on subsidizing higher and higher and higher costs for higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure that they do. So, tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.”

This year, the language was much less pointed.

On Tuesday, Obama said: “We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education.”

Does this mean that Obama believes the rising-tuition problem has been solved?

“Is that an honest question?” Duncan said.

In this arena, the policy action is intensifying. The administration is in deep discussions with colleges and others about a federal college rating system that Obama plans to launch — without congressional approval — by 2015.

Some college presidents — including one of Duncan’s former Cabinet peers, Janet Napolitano of the University of California — have expressed deep skepticism about the rating plan. But Duncan is forging ahead. In the view of administration officials, Obama has succeeded in sparking soul-searching among colleges about how to contain rising prices. So there was no need for the president to ratchet up the rhetoric.

“I think everybody realizes we’re there,” said Jamienne S. Studley, acting undersecretary of education. “So he didn’t have to beat that in the speech.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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