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Education? It's mission impossible for Obama

The president's Race to the Top policy pits states against each other in a contest for funding - but now everyone is turning on him

The president's Race to the Top policy pits states against each other in a contest for funding - but now everyone is turning on him

When an announcer at the Missouri State Fair in August asked, "Do you want to see the president chased by a bull?", the crowd roared. A rodeo clown stepped into the packed stadium and, as per usual, amused the crowd by running away from a raging bull. Only this time, he was wearing a Barack Obama mask. Half the audience laughed, thrilled to see the US president get his comeuppance. Others felt uneasy. Over the next few days, as news reports levelling charges of racism and disrespect spread over the country, people across the state began to defend their views. One question kept coming up again and again: "What has Obama done for us, anyway?"

At a college of education in Missouri, the most noticeable thing about conversations concerning Obama is how often people rush to protect him. He's characterised as the "nice guy", the chance for a "do-over" after George W Bush. But no one can ride that high for very long in politics. Disillusionment is growing in the sector, yet it is hard to fault Obama in particular. Although the president has immense international and military clout, when it comes to education the individual state legislators are in charge.

Not until the 1950s did the US federal government attempt to gain control over schools. Before then the matter was almost entirely local. But, spooked by the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the US feared that the technological race with the Soviet Union was being lost. President Dwight D Eisenhower offered federal resources to support a better education system and the public reacted enthusiastically. By the time anyone started worrying that the reforms were encroaching on local democracy, it was too late; the door to federal interference in education was already open.

As states are still in charge of education legislation, the president is really just a man with a plan, and a large pot of cash. He can't legally force anyone's hand. Obama's secret weapon in this respect is education secretary Arne Duncan - a formidable operator. While pushing an array of controversial reforms, including closer evaluation of teacher quality and the closure of low-quality schools, Duncan has managed to stay on reasonably respectful terms with the teaching unions and is unusually down to earth for a US politician.

One answer doesn't fit all

In July 2009, Obama launched Race to the Top, his linchpin education policy, through which states could compete to get a share of $4.3 billion (pound;2.7 billion) in funding. States were asked to submit plans for implementing favoured reforms. To British ears like mine, these reforms sound sensible enough - for example, adopting a national curriculum (known as the Common Core State Standards), introducing a teacher evaluation system, intervening in low-achieving schools and improving the use of data. Unfortunately, having states clamber over each other in a bid to grab money has not gone quite to plan.

First, states over-promised. This may have been down to honest glitches as much as a calculated move to get their hands on the cash, but at least two states (Georgia and Hawaii) have been labelled "high risk" because of delays in implementation, and many others have reneged on original pledges. That six of the states granted money had to ask for "waivers" recently because they had not yet met the requirements adds further grist to the cynics' mill. And this has left states that put in more realistic bids feeling aggrieved.

The second problem with Race to the Top is that it holds up one set of proposals as the answer to all ills. But does a one-room schoolhouse in Louisiana really require the same reforms as a school in inner-city Memphis? Or what if, like Massachusetts, you already have a great curriculum? Why sign up to a different one? To get around this predictable palaver, the most recent round of the race opened up the bidding to individual school districts (of which there are 14,000 in the US). Only now the complaint is that providing money in such concentrated areas compounds the already existing structural inequalities in school financing. US schools rely heavily on local property taxes for funding, meaning that those in poorer areas often have fewer resources. How likely is it that a needy district will have the resources to put together the best bid?

Ultimately, the Race to the Top exemplifies the fact that, when it comes to education, a president cannot win wholehearted admiration from the public. If he does nothing, then he is the first president since the 1950s without a vision for beating other nations. If he imposes reforms, local policymakers will scream that he is stamping on local democracy. Dangle cash and he must either pick recipients carefully, and risk helping only already well-managed areas, or dole out the cash liberally, and risk it being wasted. From the Right, the default complaint is that the president is intruding in places he shouldn't. From the Left, it is that for-profits have undue influence over policies. I am starting to wonder if the Sputnik paranoia that once united the education establishment has turned inward, causing it to tear itself apart.

So, having a bull chase a representation of the president is a little unfair. Without the ability to control schools directly, designing policies that will satisfy a nation of 300 million people is nigh on impossible. Indeed, educational reform in this vast country can be so challenging that it sometimes resembles the slapstick of Missouri State Fair's rodeo clown.

Laura McInerney is a PhD student at the University of Missouri, US, a Fulbright Award recipient and a former teacher in East London, England.

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