Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama's education secretary, has a slogan that summarizes his tenure and the view of his mission that he shares with his boss. "Education is the civil rights issue of our generation," Duncan says.
Maybe so, but if Duncan is right, the country remains very far from being "free at last" -- and the president faces mighty challenges in leading us to the mountaintop in his second term. Ironically, as Obama begins anew, it is the civil rights community that is raising some of the most urgent questions about Duncan's ideas for education reform.
Despite the administration's emphasis on raising standards, tremendous performance gaps still persist between different ethnic groups. Black students in particular are not improving their upper-grade test scores as quickly as their peers.
"A rising tide doesn't lift all boats," said Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust who was recently tapped by the College Board to work on diversity issues. "When you start with a system that has inequities as deep and damaging as ours, policies have to have intentionality about remedying those. I don't think there's been that intentionality."
Andy Rotherham, a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton on domestic policy who now works as an education consultant at Bellwether Education Partners, echoed Wilkins' concern about the Obama administration's lack of focus on minority students. "What are they going to do about equity?" he asked.
To address these and other issues, the White House is considering a major step to boost early childhood education. According to sources close to the administration, Duncan and the Department of Health and Human Services are outlining a plan to create universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds from low- and some middle-income families -- approximately 1.85 million children. The plan, which is projected to cost as much as $10 billion to implement in full, is still under review by the White House, but sources said that last Tuesday, Linda Smith, an HHS official, discussed the proposal at a meeting of early childhood advocates.
Currently, about 800,000 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families receive support through the federally funded Head Start program. In addition, about 100,000 families are enrolled in Early Head Start, which provides support to expectant mothers and infants. Whereas Head Start emphasizes things like health, nutrition and emotional development, the new program would integrate preschool into the existing K-12 school system and focus more on academics. It would also expand access to early childhood education beyond lower-income families to eventually include the middle class.
Depending on how the final proposal works, the push could be very controversial. Most advocates believe any expansion of preschool seats would be a good thing. But some worry that the change takes a holistic, somewhat successful federal program targeted at poor kids and turns it into a broader, more academic one -- and turns it over to the states, making the whole thing vulnerable to state budget cuts.
"These ideas have been floated before and shut down by Head Start folks who worry that it's letting Head Start wither on the vine," said Lisa Guernsey, an early education expert at the New America Foundation. "Head Start is for the poorest of the poor … so if you say, 'Let's stretch the program so that it's helping the middle class with pre-K access,' you risk not being able to reach all those children in poverty."
Experts and advocates on both sides of the partisan divide have recognized the importance of early childhood education. Without the opportunity to learn about things like sounds, shapes and colors in their earliest years, when brains are most malleable, children walk into their first days of kindergarten already far behind. Research has shown that this early educational disadvantage follows students throughout their academic lives, translating into yawning achievement gaps in later grades.
Early childhood education attainment -- and Head Start in particular -- has also been tied to better life outcomes. In 2012, several police chiefs highlighted the need for more and better preschool as a long-term crime reduction tool. James Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning economist, has shown that every dollar spent on quality early childhood education yields a seven to 10 percent return on investment as the program's graduates begin contributing to the economy.
"I would hope that [Obama] takes on early childhood education," Dennis van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said in a recent interview. "If we're ever going to tackle this issue about equity, that's where you start. I've been hounding Secretary Duncan about it for a year."
The American public on the whole is not so emphatic in its support for increased preschool access. Although 40 percent of Americans do not "think that most parents of young children have access to affordable pre-kindergarten," according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, there are 33 percent who believe they do, and 27 percent who weren't sure. Thirty-seven percent of respondents indicated they thought the feds should spend more on early childhood education, but 23 percent thought they should spend less, and 24 percent thought spending levels should remain the same.
But expanding access to early education could help Obama secure his legacy with the middle class. The program could also be advantageous politically, helping him mend fences with teachers unions, a stalwart of the Democratic base. Obama appeased them to an extent during his first term by using more stimulus money to preserve the jobs of hundreds of thousands of teachers during the recession. But teachers continue to criticize the administration over its support for teacher evaluations and charter schools.
The unions say they're concerned about student preparedness when entering the classroom, something the new pre-K program would address. It also wouldn't hurt that, in tying pre-K to the existing K-12 system, the plan would likely create thousands of new NEA and AFT members -- after a post-recession trend of membership drops.
The details of the new pre-K program have yet to be worked out, though Smith reportedly said kids in families that make below 200 percent of the poverty line would be eligible. Sources told HuffPost that Smith declined to say how the administration would pay for it. Duncan and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have reportedly met in recent weeks to discuss the early childhood push. Philanthropist Susie Buffett is also said to have lobbied for the issue with the White House over the summer.
When asked about the early education plan, an administration official said that the White House is in constant conversation with HHS but declined to give further details, citing a desire not to get out in front of the president.
At the meeting of early childhood advocates, sources say Smith described the administration's plan as a 10-year project "to transfer responsibilities for public funding of 4-year-olds' education to states from the feds and supporting states." Another senior administration official is said to have suggested that instead of paying for the entire expansion itself, the administration would try to "incentivize" change, as it did with the Race to the Top competition. That contest had states vie to adopt parts of the Obama administration's education agenda, such as charter schools and test-based teacher evaluations, in exchange for their share of $4.35 billion in stimulus funding.
Smith could not be reached for comment.
If the administration can't get a new funding stream to pay for or incentivize the pre-K program -- a likely outcome in 2013's fiscal climate -- experts worry that funding could be taken from other programs, such as Head Start. Former Sen. Mike Castle (R-Del.) proposed a similar plan several years ago, which would have pulled federal funding from Head Start and replaced it with block grants to states, though it ultimately failed to pass.
Shifting Head Start to states might also yield further cuts. Over the past decade, cash-strapped states have cut millions, or $700 per child, from their preschool budgets.
"The big concern in the current environment is that states have been cutting childcare and pre-K funding, so any effort to move Head Start to the states would need to include some really careful work around preventing states from using Head Start money to result in additional cuts or reduce the overall amount of money going to early childhood in the states," said Sara Mead, an early education analyst at Bellwether Education Partners.
In addition to the push for early childhood education, the administration is focusing on implementing the reforms it passed in Obama's first term. (Duncan must also implement the school safety recommendations the White House issued this week in light of the Newtown, Conn. shooting.) The country's public school system still faces crippling problems, with students learning less as they grow older and progress through higher grades. Teachers, who in recent years have faced budget cuts, increased class sizes and curtailed collective bargaining rights, are generally unhappy about their jobs. And according to a recent Gallup poll, Americans' opinion of public schools is at an all-time low.
According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, 39 percent of Americans approve of Obama's handling of education, 33 percent disapprove and 28 percent were unsure. A full 41 percent indicated that they thought Obama could make "a major difference" in education -- a notable number given that the federal government controls less than one-tenth of public school funding nationwide.
In response to governors' gripes that the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act was too punitive, Obama and Duncan waived the law in more than half of all U.S. states. More states may seek waivers during Obama's second term. But these waivers eventually sunset -- and so as long as Congress hasn't reauthorized the law to the administration's liking, Obama's legacy on this will be flimsy at best.
Duncan has conceded that in order to preserve the gains made by Race to the Top, he must also make sure that all states and school districts comply with their commitments to the program, including implementation of the Common Core standards -- a new way of teaching and learning that emphasizes depth over breadth and will purportedly enable the next generation of Americans to compete in a global economy that values critical thinking and data evaluation.
One major challenge will be managing the rollout and reaction to the Common Core exams in 2014. Since the tests are much tougher than current state standardized tests, parents and school districts will likely see scores appear to plummet at first. Duncan has said said he will continue to support the Common Core and direct the administration's attention to evaluating principals.
Wilkins of the Education Trust worries, however, that merely mandating the implementation of the Common Core's higher learning standards -- without sufficiently supporting them -- will cause minority students to lose out.
"We're going to give teachers the bun -- the standards and the test -- but we're leaving out the meat, which is how it should be taught," Wilkins said. "The federal government should help pay some states to help get teachers the tools they need."
This article is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read other posts in the series, click here.