There was no lack of education news in 2011. From an explosion in school choice options to the Obama Administration's executive overreach, the top stories included the high and low lights when it came to issues affecting America's schools.
10. Obama Administration orchestrates for-profit university witch hunt. On June 2, the Department of Education issued restrictive new regulations targeting "for-profit" higher education institutions. The new "gainful employment" regulation restricts access to student loans for students attending for-profit institutions (like Capella University or the University of Phoenix, for instance) if the school's average debt-to-earnings ratio exceeds 12 percent of a graduate's income. The net result? De-facto government price controls on a sector meeting the needs of students historically underserved by traditional universities.
9. Obama forgives student loans. In November, President Obama traveled to the University of Colorado-Boulder to announce his plan to forgive federal student loans — a demand made, notably, by the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Students cannot be required to pay more than 10 percent of their discretionary income on loan payments, all of which will be forgiven after 20 years. Sadly, this executive overreach shifts the burden of paying for college from the students who are directly benefiting from having attended college, to the nearly three-quarters of Americans who did not graduate from college.
8. Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) sees action. Federal education policy watchers were surprised to see the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee pass a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), today known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). As bureaucratic and heavy-handed as NCLB is currently, the Senate HELP Committee’s proposal was 1,000 pages of even more Washington-style education “reform.“ Instead of taking a cue from conservatives in Congress who have put forward proposals to allow states to completely opt-out of the bureaucratic law, the HELP committee put a stamp of approval on a proposal to reinforce the status-quo. Hopefully the Senate committee’s solo action will remain a 2011 relic, and approaches to allow states to opt-out completely will be considered in the new year.
7. House Education and the Workforce Committee moves to reduce federal role in education. This year, the House Education and the Workforce Committee put forward some major proposals to begin the important work of reducing the federal role in education. Two important proposals were introduced: one, by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), would trim the number of programs under NCLB from around 80 down to 43. Another by Chairman John Kline (R-MN), would allow states more flexibility to spend federal education dollars in a way that best meets the needs of local students. Both are good first steps to returning more power to state and local leaders, and reducing Washington’s bloated role in education.
6. Online learning growth accelerates. In 2011, a growing number of families decided to take advantage of the online learning options now available for K-12 students across the country. According to Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning, there are now 30 states with full-time online learning schools, open to students from districts across the state. Forty states offer state-run virtual schools, online charter schools are proliferating, and many more families are taking advantage of private online learning providers. Across the country, students are taking millions of courses online, customizing their educational experiences.
5. Administration continues national standards push. One of the more concerning education developments in 2011 was the Obama Administration’s continued push for states to adopt national standards and tests. The Common Core national standards, created by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, have been backed by the Obama administration with $4.35 billion in Race to the Top money (grants were conditioned on states adopting common standards), through the forthcoming No Child Left Behind waivers, and in the Department of Education’s “blueprint” for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. National standards are a significant Washington overreach into what is taught in local schools, and would further remove parents for the educational decision-making process.
4. Obama Administration issues No Child Left Behind waivers. Despite Congressional deliberations over NCLB’s future and thoughtful alternatives to the law put forward by the House Education and the Workforce Committee and others, the Obama Administration decided in the fall of 2011 that time was up and began an end-run around Congress. The Administration began the process of issuing waivers to states for NCLB, conditioning access to the waivers on whether a state was willing to adopt the Administration’s preferred education policies — basically re-writing policy from the White House. The waivers are another executive overreach from the Obama Administration, and state leaders should reject them in 2012 and demand genuine relief from NCLB.
3. States limit collective bargaining. Education unions have long been a roadblock to reform. But in a bold move in early 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker limited the power of public sector collective bargaining in his state. Most importantly, Gov. Walker gave teachers a choice: Public school teachers can now choose whether or not to join a union. Other states like Idaho followed suit and successfully curtailed the excessive power of education unions this year. But the fight isn’t over. Gov. Walker faces a potential recall, which will move forward if 540,000 signatures are collected by January 17, 2012.
2. Congress reauthorizes the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. In 2009 and 2010, families of low-income children receiving vouchers through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program were reeling with uncertainty. The program was on its way to extinction due to language inserted in a 2009 spending bill by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). But in early 2011, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) made it his personal mission to see that the voucher program was restored and expanded, and he successfully fought for the reauthorization of the D.C. OSP. It was a welcome and well-deserved victory for D.C. families, who had fought so hard to ensure educational opportunity for their children.
1. Year of School Choice. The most exciting educational development of the last year was captured by a Wall Street Journal editorial headline crowning 2011 “The Year of School Choice.” In 2011, more families than ever before gained access to school choice options, freeing them from assignment-by-zip code policies that often relegate families to the public school closest to their home, regardless of whether it meet their child’s needs. Now, more families have access to school choice options such as vouchers, tax credits, homeschooling, online learning, and even education savings accounts, restoring their control over their child’s education. In all, 12 states and the District of Columbia either enacted or expanded school choice options in 2011.