Obama's Education Plans Uncertain

Although President-elect Barack Obama unveiled a plan to reform higher education early in his campaign, declaring a goal to make college affordable and available to middle-class families, recent public statements have led experts to doubt whether his presidency will reflect those promises.

For college students seeking ways to cover growing tuition costs, Obama has proposed a $4,000 refundable tax credit, nearly four times the current Hope Credit offered by the IRS, in return for 100 hours of community service. Obama also discussed streamlining the financial-aid process while increasing the availability of work-study programs during talks with the National Education Assessment Program last spring.

Obama declared his intention to increase Pell Grants for low-income students to attend college by $1.5 billion. Currently the program has a $16 billion annual budget.

However, professor of political science Sandy Lakoff said that while Obama made education a recurring theme throughout the primary election, he played the issue down during the general election.

“Obama’s elaborate proposals for student aid were made in 2007, at a time when he was relying heavily on support from younger voters, especially those on college campuses who were vital primary voters and caucusgoers,” Lakoff said. “Since he won the nomination and has had to court a broader segment of the electorate, he has alluded to these proposals only vaguely.”

During the primaries, Obama made promises to increase teachers’ pay based on individual performance and promoted a “zero to five” program, which places an emphasis on early care and education for infants and encourages states to move toward voluntary universal preschool, but Lakoff said that within subsequent speeches and during his debates with Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) he toned down his rhetoric. In a Sept. 9 address on the topic of education in Dayton, Ohio, Obama avoided specific policy goals regarding funding and restructuring, focusing instead on the general importance of education and reform.

“This [trend] may indicate that his commitment to [funding and restructuring] is more that of an office-seeking politician than a champion and is therefore subject to the vagaries of campaigning and governing,” Lakoff said. “In any case, they are probably not going to get higher priority.”

However, Obama’s focus on reforming the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act since 2002 is promising, UCSD professor and Director of Education Studies Amanda Datnow said.

“Obama has promised to improve the assessments that are used to track student progress and to provide support to rather than punish low-performing schools,” Datnow said. “He has also suggested important changes with respect to recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, educating English language learners and improving afterschool programs.”

Additionally, Obama has talked about enlarging Head Start, an early childhood education program, and making it more affordable for low-income families, according to Lakoff. Both Datnow and Lakoff consider Obama’s proposals, as they stand, to be solid.

“His proposals are indeed a step in the right direction, both in K-12 and higher education,” Datnow said. “His education advisor through the campaign was Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who is a strong, well-respected voice regarding educational reform in the teaching profession and in creating more equity and access.”

The issue of education has been frequently overshadowed by the current economic crisis. Datnow said she considers Obama’s proposals in higher education as a way to slow the damage currently sustained from massive budget cuts.

“With respect to the UC system, Obama’s proposals will hopefully assist us in achieving goals of improving access and funding for higher education at the student level,” Datnow said. “However, in California, we will still be grappling with a severe budget shortfall at the institutional level.”

Chair of the department of economics Julian Betts agreed that the economy is deeply linked to the state of education in California.

“Both K-12 and postsecondary education in California are entirely held hostage by the budget crisis in Sacramento, which in turn is a function of the global financial crisis,” Betts said. “We all are going to have to hold our breath and wait for the economy to mend itself.”

However, Lakoff said that because both Obama and his wife Michelle were students who depended on loans to pay for college, he remains hopeful for the president-elect’s committment to higher education. In January 2004, Obama and his wife paid the last of over $42,000 in student debts for both undergraduate studies and law school.

“Enabling young people to pursue higher education is a cause in which Obama obviously has a keen interest, especially since he and his wife were beneficiaries of aid programs,” Lakoff said.

Lakoff also noted that the Democratic president-elect is much more likely to find cooperation in the UC system.

“University faculties are overwhelmingly in favor of the Democrats and would rather deal with an Obama administration,” Lakoff said.