Neal McCluskey

Political perfection: Obama gets feted as courageous and bold while assuring the old guard that nothing gets done without it. His most recent address did little to change that. He talked about rejecting “a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences,” but said nothing about how failure is actually defined or what consequences it should carry. Nothing concrete was said allowing everyone to feel safe and happy.

Charter schooling is another area in which Obama threw overboard any substantive proposals, enabling him to skillfully navigate tricky political waters and achieve maximum political gain. Calling for both the removal of caps on charter schools and greater charter “accountability,” the President ensured that everyone would be happy. Charter supporters could celebrate cap-lifting and call Obama a friend, while opponents could expect to gain greater control over the schools they find so vexing.

Finally, there’s college for all. Like pre-kindergarten education, this is a political slam-dunk. In February, the polling outfit Public Agenda found that 89 percent of Americans agree that “we should not allow the price…to keep students who are qualified and motivated” from attending college. Not surprisingly, in this safe zone the president once again furnished specific proposals, most notably to make Pell Grants an entitlement and index their growth above inflation.

But this isn’t real change – Washington has been increasing student aid for decades. Indeed, college has become less affordable in part because enabling students to pay more has allowed colleges to charge more. One of the best things to do to make college more affordable, then, would be to

cut student aid. But that kind of real change is politically hard.

So on education, is President Obama an intrepid reformer, as his words might suggest and many believe, or just a savvy politician? It’s too early to know for sure, but so far nothing that he’s said – or left unsaid – suggests he’s anything but the latter.

Neal McCluskey

Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of the book Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.

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