College faculty discuss potential secretary of education

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December 4, 2008

11:59 PM

As the initial reaction over President-elect Barack Obama’s victory fades, discussion regarding the composition of his cabinet has commenced. One question garnering speculation is who Obama will choose as secretary of education, a post vital to fufilling the president-elect’s campaign promise to make “a truly historic commitment to education,” and one that will have long-lasting effects on the College of William and Mary.

Names recently reported by the Associated Press as possible choices include some familiar faces in government, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell — the father of the Board of Visitor’s Rector
Michael Powell ’85 — and former Governor of North Carolina Jim Hunt, as well as administrators at public schools, namely Arne Duncan of the Chicago and Inez Tenenbaum of South Carolina.

According to Dean of the School of Education Virginia McLaughlin ’71, Linda Darling-Hammond, a key Obama advisor throughout his campaign and a professor of education at Stanford University, is a top candidate among those in higher education.

“What’s unique about Linda Darling-Hammond is that she understands education in both the contexts of higher education and K-12,” McLaughlin said. “She’s been in higher education and in schools — particularly tackling challenges within urban schools.”

McLaughlin also expressed support for Hunt, lauding him as a true “education governor.”

Economics professor David Feldman, who is currently collaborating with fellow economics professor Robert Archibald on a book about the cost of higher education, pointed out that Hunt’s selection could also procure political gains.

“Hunt’s proven himself as an effective leader, which appeals to the incoming administration,” Feldman said.
“And from an intensely political perspective, Democrats would love nothing more than to make North Carolina a battleground state by picking one of their senior leaders for such a position.”

Whoever Obama ultimately chooses will have to confront many issues facing the American higher education system.

“The first pressing problems are reductions in state appropriations, endowment earnings and the likelihood that donors will be generous,” Archibald said.

He explained that all three are related to the “downturn in the overall economy.” The federal government can most effectively assist institutes of higher education by mitigating the current recession, he said.

“More directly, candidate Obama talked about a tax credit for tuition payments,” Archibald said. “If that is part of the stimulus package, it could have a positive effect on higher education.”

Obama’s American Opportunity Tax Credit offers all Americans a $4,000 refundable tax credit to ease the burden of paying for the rising costs of college. Feldman, while not opposed to the tax credit, believes other non-universal initiatives aimed directly at those who struggle to pay tuition and other university-related expenses would be more cost-effective.

“If that money was redirected toward substantially strengthening the Pell Grant program, for instance, it would actually create opportunities by offering more to those who would otherwise be unable to attend college,”
Feldman said. “It’s a more efficient way, but doesn’t build as sexy a political coalition [as the American Opportunity Tax Credit] by appealing to every family with a college student.”

In the end, irrespective of the particular higher education policies that Obama will put forth in the coming years, McLaughlin hopes to see a shift in the overall relationship between the federal government and the education community.

“Under [this] Republican administration, there’s been an increase in the role of the federal government with much more complex and prescriptive initiatives,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin cited the No Child Left Behind Act and the Standard Intergovernmental Personnel Act as examples.

“I would hope [Obama] would temper this direction, restore balance between the governance systems and have the federal government ensure the appropriate level of quality and equity without operating so intrusively,” she said.

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