Obama: Redefining the Role of Federal Government in Education in America

by Sadiq A. Abdullahi

Since President Obama became president of the United States in 2009, the federal government has increased its influence and involvement in public education particularly in elementary and secondary education. The latest initiative came in the form of the Race to the Top reform plan designed to provide monetary incentive to schools in need of improvement.

In 2007, Congress appropriated $125 million to states and school districts to support their efforts to improve under-performing schools. In 2009, about $3.5 billion has been appropriated through the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) to state governments and school districts.

The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, believes that if the Race to the Top program is properly interpreted, implemented and administered, it will spark creativity, innovation, replication across the country and thus making it the best efforts of the Obama administration. As a consequence, different conversations are been held at various levels by different stakeholders in education to come up with better strategies to meet the requirements for funding. President Obama has changed the educational rhetoric into action and implementation, and forcing all stakeholders such as the federal, state, and local governments, the national, state and local unions to the table to discuss effective ways to improve public education.

All is consistent with President Obama’s vision for public education. First, in February, he signed ARRA into law. The ARRA provides approximately $100 billion for education, creating an unprecedented opportunity to save many jobs, support states and school districts, and advance reforms and improvement that will create long-lasting results for students and the nation. The stimulus plan was designed to impact early childhood, elementary, and secondary education.

The new Race to the Top program is designed to put state government and school districts in a competitive race for federal grants. The program has four key areas. The first is teacher evaluations. The federal government wants to know that teachers are teaching effectively and students are learning. The second are charter schools. The Obama administration believes that charter schools have a role to play in public education. The third are academic standards. The Obama administration believes in the standards-based accountability movement. The fourth is buy-in from teachers unions. This is an area of new interest for President Obama. Traditionally, school districts and teachers unions have developed an adversarial relationship that has hindered true progress and Obama wants to put an end to that.

A commitment of support and a memorandum of understanding must be drawn from the state teachers union and signed off by local teachers unions in order to states to qualify. Once agreements have been reached and all modalities worked out, school districts will be invited to apply for the federal grant. The first round award winners will be announced in March 2010.

Arne Duncan believes that “if properly interpreted, implemented and administered, the program has the potential to spark creativity, innovation, replication- all of which can help underperforming schools.”

Two major national organizations for teachers, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), are leading the way in guiding state and local teachers unions in the process. Both organizations continue to work hard to enhance the quality of the teaching profession and to improve the working conditions of teachers across the country.

In South Florida, the United Teachers of Dade (UTD) leads this effort. Since the 1970s, UTD has addressed problems facing teachers and fought the Miami-Dade Public Schools (M-DCPS) over teacher salaries and benefits. The M-DCPS district serves as central office and provides the vision for schools. The administrators also serve as leaders for schools by meeting the needs of the schools and providing a unifying vision for the district. The Miami-Dade County School Board is the caretaker and the body vested with the legal and state constitutional authority to make final decisions.

President Obama has made a personal commitment to assist in improving student achievement, attendance rates, and graduation in American high schools. He has encouraged the creation of smaller high schools with career paths for students and various learning professional communities in high schools. The challenge remains as America faces the parental involvement as the biggest obstacle to lasting school reform.

As America deals with the larger societal problems, school administrators must come to the realization that the issue of equity and diversity in public schools remains a real threat to school improvement across the country. School administrators must endeavor to build trust and respectful connections between staff and teachers and between schools and the community. The Race to the Top will fail if teachers do not buy into this reform effort, after all money alone cannot solve all the problems facing American education.

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