The Next Liberal Cause: Could It Be Education?

President Obama announced plans yesterday to expand the Race to the Top education program, which invites states to apply for slices of a $4 billion pie of additional school funding. Last year Obama launched the program with two major messages: (1) We need to locate effective teachers by studying student data, and (2) we need better standards to keep some states (ahem, Mississippi) from setting their education bar so low that they gut the word "standard" of all meaning.

In future iterations, Race to the Top will allow not only states, but also individual districts, to apply for additional federal funding. This change makes sense for two reasons. The first is wholly practical. Most school funding comes from local property taxes, and accordingly education policies, and their success, can vary dramatically on a district-by-district basis within a state. The second reason this makes sense for the administration is more political. Appealing to individual districts provides a way to circumvent governors like Texas's Rick Perry who don't want to accept additional education funds.

[Obama] also took a jab at Texas, where Republican Gov. Rick Perry is refusing to compete for Race to the Top for fear of a "federal takeover" of his schools. Mr. Obama said, "Innovative districts ... in Texas whose reform efforts are being stymied by state decision-makers will soon have the chance to earn funding to help them pursue those reforms."

Since states are facing a historic bottoming out of tax revenue, this is a shrewd time for the federal government to dangle billions of dollars in front of state education officials in exchange for big reforms. For example, Race to the Top funds cannot go to states, like New York, that prohibit student performance from affecting teacher assessments. But you can imagine that a state, like New York, running a $13.7 billion 2009-10 deficit might be tantalized to take much needed money in exchange for ruffling the feathers of the teachers' unions.

It should also be said that with health care's prospects looking dim, a renewed focus on education could be a good way for Obama to build the bridges Americans think he's burned with Republicans and to reclaim the mantle of a new kind of progressive -- one whose policies combine a liberal belief in the power of government money with a federalist faith in our states to govern themselves. In any case, Democrats will be looking for reasons to not light themselves on fire in the next few weeks. Education policy wouldn't be a bad place to refocus their energies.