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November 19, 2012

Loose ends to drive second term education agenda

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's education agenda for next four years may look less like real reform and more like tying up loose ends, experts say, with practical budget issues and an age-old power struggle between Congress and the administration getting in the way.

Campaign-year aspirations for Obama's second term included closing the educational achievement gap and boosting college graduation rates to the highest in the world. But those lofty goals may have to wait, as lawmakers and Obama tackle a number of gritty funding-related issues that just can't wait.

First up is sequestration, the automatic, government-wide spending cuts set to knock out 8.2 percent of the funding to almost all of the Education Department's programs — unless Congress acts before the end of the year to avert the cuts.

Programs intended to reduce educational inequities will take a hit of $1.3 billion, according to the White House's Office of Management and Budget. Special education, already funded far below the levels Congress originally promised, will be slashed by more than $1 billion. Most of the reductions won't take effect until next fall, when the 2013-14 school year starts, but Impact Aid, which helps districts that lose revenue due to local tax-exempt federal property, would be cut immediately.

Education advocates are optimistic a plan will be hashed out that will leave most major education programs relatively unscathed.

"Even Republicans understand that cutting education spending is not something that is popular with voters," said Michael Petrilli, a former Education Department official and executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

What comes next is less certain. The Education Department refused to comment on its agenda for the next four years, but Secretary Arne Duncan, who has said he would like to stay on for Obama's second term, has hinted at the administration's focus. Petrilli and others closely watching the administration's signals on education say it's likely the focus will be on early childhood education and higher ed.

Pre-kindergarten was a major focus for Obama in his first term, when he strengthened Head Start's accountability rules and expanded his Race to the Top program to include pre-K.

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