Education Needs To Be On The To-Do List

Commentator Andrew J. Rotherham
Whitney Jackson

Andrew J. Rotherham is co-founder of Education Sector, a national education policy think tank, and a member of the Virginia Board of Education. He writes the blog Eduwonk.com.

Dear President-elect Obama:

I'll be honest; even education types like me hope you deal with the economy before doing anything else. Still, as you pointed out to Sen. John McCain during the financial crisis, a president must multitask. And education reform should be on your to-do list.

As president you will have two important tools at your disposal: the power of the podium and the power of the purse. To be successful on education you'll need both.

The podium is free. That's good news you'll surely appreciate given the current economic situation. The best thing you can do to improve schools is just talk forthrightly with Americans about the urgency of school reform. In too many communities, public schools remain a barrier to opportunity for students rather than a ticket to a life with good choices. This is especially true for minorities.

Too many Americans, especially those who enjoy good educational options now, are disengaged from these problems. You must get them in the fight.

The bad news is that nothing else is free. Traditionally, we buy educational improvement. Established interests get enough money to dull the sting of reform while reformers get change. That is how presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did it — and President Johnson long before them. But with today's budget picture, you can't afford much. Instead, you must use the federal purse strategically rather than just putting more money into the same things.

With that in mind, here are a few do's and don't's.

Do invest in quality pre-kindergarten education. This one costs a lot, but is worth it. Ensuring that every 4-year-old, especially poor children, can attend a good preschool program is essential to closing the achievement gap.

Do keep your campaign promise to double spending on public charter schools. You're right to support more choice and customization in public education. Parents want it, and it's good for students.

Do improve federal programs designed to produce better teachers. The $3 billion the government spends on this now is largely ineffective. Your support for pay-for-performance for teachers is one idea among many to use this money more wisely.

Do invest more in research and innovation. The federal investment in education research and development pales in comparison with other federal agencies. These are relatively inexpensive investments with big payoffs.

Finally, do not flinch on real accountability for schools. No Child Left Behind cast a harsh light on schools that are not serving all their students well. That understandably makes people angry, but school reform shouldn't be about public relations. Holding firm on school accountability and helping schools improve might cost more politically than in actual dollars. Regardless, it's worth it if you want to expand opportunity in America.

Fixing the economy is the top priority immediately. Making our public schools engines of opportunity for all students must be this generation's priority. Even with today's constraints, you can play an enormous role.

Andrew J. Rotherham is co-founder of Education Sector, a national education policy think tank, and a member of the Virginia Board of Education. He writes the blog Eduwonk.com.

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