Since 1937, January has been the chosen month for every president to deliver his inaugural address to the American people. It seems like just yesterday that we listened to 47-year-old Barack Obama deliver his first inaugural address in January 2009. The moment was significant for several reasons: he was the first black person elected to the Oval Office, the second president to take an oath of office with his hand laid on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible (Lincoln himself being the first) and only the third president to enter the White House directly from the U.S. Senate (Warren Harding and John F. Kennedy being the others).
Obama also broke new ground by using his inauguration speech to talk about schools. For example, of the 14 two-term presidents to reference “school” or “schools” in an inaugural speech delivered between 1789 and 2012, Obama and George W. Bush are the only ones to say either word in each address. Furthermore, Obama recognized the challenges in American education — the only president to proclaim in an inauguration speech that “our schools fail too many.”
Acting on his declaration, Obama’s eight-year effort to reverse the tide of failure in American schools included some important victories. They include the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, reining in unscrupulous for-profit higher education institutions, and executive action to address the school-to-prison pipeline for youth and the prison-to-work pipeline for adults.
At the same time, the administration fell short of its goals. Shrinking the number of “dropout factories” from 2,000 to 800 between 2010 and 2016 is an impressive accomplishment, but Obama had hoped for more. At the higher education level, while some of his policies helped many first-generation students attend college, a change in the Parent Plus Loan program in 2011 negatively impacted thousands of students from lower-income households. This decision particularly affected those who wanted to attend historically black colleges and universities — a core constituency of the Obama administration.
Every president leaves the White House with clear victories and shortcomings in education. How should we assess the Obama legacy?
Gerard Robinson is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he works on education policy issues including choice in public and private schools, implementation of K–12 standards, innovation in for-profit educational institutions, and the role of community colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in adult advancement.
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