Reasonable people can disagree about former President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative – his multibillion education competition among states – but it was a big idea. So, too, were President Bill Clinton’s push for school standards and accountability, President George H.W. Bush’s push for national standards and President George W. Bush’s effort to make standards really mean something for low-income and minority youth.
President Donald Trump’s big idea was to be school choice – in some ways a natural outgrowth of the ups and downs of the efforts of his predecessors. But don’t hold your breath. The president’s team is neither laying the groundwork nor figuring out the policy for an ambitious choice push and, in any event, Washington will be consumed with the Russian investigation for the foreseeable future. Currently, Trump’s choice plan is at best a talking point. The administration is handling the issue so poorly, it’s shattering even more alliances among Republicans than Democrats right now – despite how choice exposes the political fragility of the Democratic coalition.
But as we look toward 2020, it’s not too early to think about the kind of big ideas our education system needs. (Rather than get sidetracked in the tiresome debate about whether or not we have an education crisis, just bear in mind that fewer than 10 percent of low-income and minority students receive a college degree by the time they’re 24, while overall outcomes are middling at best. Seems like something to which even people casually concerned about inequality should pay attention.) The incentives against big education ideas are formidable: Republicans fetishize state and local control, and Democrats tiptoe around the teachers unions because of their outsized role in the nominating process.
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