Obama’s Re-election Mandate: Fix Our Failing Schools

Obama’s Re-election Mandate: Fix Our Failing Schools

History will tell whether President Obama’s compromise on the Bush-era tax cuts was the beginning of his political rebound or yet another step on his slippery slide to being a one-term president. Obama announced his agreement with Republican leaders to extend lower rates for all taxpayers with all the enthusiasm of someone signing up for dental surgery. He faces outrage on the left and only begrudging support on the right.

This moment is of the president’s own making. He has created a rare divide in this country, pitting the prosperous and successful against the average Joe. The United States was built on a history of individualism and adventure, entrepreneurship and risk-taking. We have, until recently, been a culture that lauds achievement. Not long ago I interviewed two foreign high achievers who had made their careers in the U.S. – a Brit who runs a leading magazine and a highly placed French money manager. When asked whether they ever regretted leaving home for most of their adult lives, they said that they enjoyed working here because, unlike in their home countries, the U.S. celebrates success. Both added, however, “Although that seems to be changing.” It was a chilling (and unrehearsed) duet.

Having argued so strenuously against extending the Bush cuts for those making more than $250,000, President Obama takes a political body blow in agreeing to extend the lower rates for all earners. During the midterm campaigns, he forcefully (and frequently) spoke out on this topic, with considerable success. In September, 37 percent of Americans agreed that all the tax cuts should be extended; by the beginning of this month, after being inundated by the president’s campaign speeches, the portion of Americans endorsing tax cuts for all had dropped to 26 percent. Nonetheless, voters turned out to trounce Obama’s Democratic colleagues; apparently they doubted that this argument was key to the country’s future. They were right.

Education is the Way to Reboot
After this second drubbing, how can President Obama bounce back? Simple. Zero in on a cause that has widespread support (unlike health care) and get something done. The president gave an excellent speech this week in North Carolina, at Forsyth Technical Community College, that could easily become the template for his comeback. In his remarks, he championed investments in education and in research and development. Importantly, he also acknowledged the crucial role that our businesses must play in our country’s success. “The most important contest we face is not between Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “It’s between America and our economic competitors all around the world.” He also commented that, “The best antidote to a growing deficit, by the way, is a growing economy.” At last.

In particular, he pressed the need to reboot our public education system. He noted that the U.S. has slid in one generation from first to ninth place in the portion of young people earning college degrees; in high school graduation rates “we’re ranked 18th out of 24 industrialized nations,” and “27th in the proportion of science and engineering degrees we hand out.”  These shameful numbers cited by the president were reinforced by the humiliating results of international tests announced earlier this week, showing that U.S. students are just average.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported the results of its 2009 global standardized testing of 15-year-olds in 65 countries around the world, called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Students in Shanghai ranked first in science, reading and math, with students in Hong Kong performing nearly as well. The U.S. came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. U.S. test-takers not only trailed far behind Chinese, Korean and Japanese youngsters, but also were outscored by students in countries that have faced economic trials, such as Estonia, Iceland and Poland – furthering the embarrassment. In explaining the results, the OECD noted the long hours that Chinese students put in preparing for tests – hours that extend into the weekends. In short, they work harder.

In his North Carolina speech, Obama said facing up to our education debacle was our Sputnik moment. He is right. To his credit, the president has sounded this theme before, as have his predecessors. However, President Obama has every opportunity to press for further changes in our education system, and now he has a need. Only a Democrat can take on the powerful teachers’ unions, who must be forced to overturn decades-long practices, such as firing the newest teachers instead of getting rid of the weakest performers, that have created a system undermined by mediocrity and incompetence. Moreover, as an outstandingly successful African-American, he is perfectly positioned to push parents in our poorest minority communities to support their children’s education goals. Teaching our children begins in the home and cannot be entirely the responsibility of our schools.

There is much work to be done, and President Obama has taken some excellent first steps, such as appointing Arne Duncan as Education Secretary. But he has also wobbled; not voicing support for the effective Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, signaled a lack of commitment. As in a number of other spheres, Mr. Obama needs to stake out this ground as his own and spend his political capital making a real difference. If effective, he should win the admiration of all Americans.