Education in the First 100 Days

The inauguration of President-elect Obama in January brings not only changes to the executive branch, but also changes in Congress with a larger Democratic majority. While we have a month until that happens, much is still going on with the transition team, and there is more to look forward to in the first 100 days of the new administration. This month we spoke with Fritz Edelstein, a principal at Public Private Action, a consulting firm focusing on strategy, advocacy, policy, outreach management, and access. Edelstein has also worked at the U.S. Department of Education and the United States Conference of Mayors.

Right at the beginning of our conversation, we spoke about the selection of the Secretary of Education. At the time, Obama had not made a pick yet, and Edelstein predicted someone would be chosen for the position before Christmas. Edelstein's prediction was right; on Tuesday, Dec. 16, the President-elect picked Arne Duncan, superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, the nations third-largest school district.

Education will also not be pushed aside for other issues as the new administration gets to work. “I don’t think it is going to be shoved aside. I think the problem is that they always look at issues as singular issues. I don’t think that you can look at it, given the economic times and the interrelationship between issues, to do it that way.” Instead, education will be intertwined with an economic stimulus. “Education is part of the second economic package that will be before Congress in the new session after January 1. There’s about $2.5B included in the package for school construction, renovation, etc. That hasn’t been there before,” Edelstein explains. The money for school construction is considered by Obama to be crucial to the stimulus; jobs are created through the construction. “For the first time ever,” Edelstein went on, “schools are being thought of as part of the nation’s infrastructure — in a strategy to fund that.”

Of course, while education will be on the radar screen, there are some issues that are going to take priority in the beginning of the administration. Even so, education, as mentioned above, will be a vital part of other economic issues.

“What’s going to happen in those first 100 to 180 days, and even prior to those 100 days,” Edelstein says, “he’ll designate a secretary, he or she will be vetted, and they’ll have a hearing.” We should expect “a core team of people, possibly those from the transition, whether they are the agency people of the policy people, along with one or two designees, plus whomever the new secretary-to-be brings on board.” No designee can site in the office they will hold until they have been confirmed as a presidential appointee, “so they’ll meet in some offices and move forward on their plan.”

Edelstein states that this team’s plan will most likely include school construction, and the regulations recently passed by the Bush administration dealing with graduation rates and supplemental educational services. “Those will be reviewed, and they’ll take action after January 21st.” After that, “they’ll start work on No Child Left Behind.” He points out, “There is an agenda already in place to move forward — depending on how quickly they can get people in house. The faster they can gear up, the faster they can move forward. It will be on the agenda; it will be discussed; it will not be forgotten.”

When asked whether the push for reform will come from the executive or from Congress, Edelstein feels it is something completely different. “I think that this administration will do something different than the Bush administration,” he says. “The Bush administration decided not write its own legislation proposals for the Hill, but asked the Hill, Congress, to write No Child Left Behind. I believe that this administration will not relinquish the opportunity to write the initial legislation, which becomes the benchmark from which anything else is measured.” Edelstein sees this the incoming administration as much more proactive. “Obviously there will be conversation with Congress, and things that have already transpired, meaning hearings and some writing, will be considered — Congress will be consulted in the shaping of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.” We can expect to see the reauthorization package anywhere between the end of the first year and into the second year of the new administration.

In summary, for the first 100 days, “you’ll see appointments.” After that, there will be “some basic activity on anything the department, staff, and administration wants to reverse in any of the recent regulations issued by the Bush administration in education that they feel exceed the law, doesn’t meet their policy, etc.” Because of the crisis in student lending, we will probably also see some amount of activity concerning student financial aid.

We can also look for work on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and changes in the structure of the agency. Along with the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, “there’s going to be a huge conversation about national education standards — what does that mean, how do we accomplish it if we can.” Edelstein adds that we will continue the “conversation about benchmarks and accountability assessments.”

And, whether from the agency or Obama, we’ll also hear about school construction as part of the jobs/infrastructure stimulus package. Groups pushing for funding for middle school and high school will also push hard.