Obama’s Best-Kept Secrets
October 21, 2012, 7:00am


ONE thing that has struck me about the debates so far is how little President Obama has conveyed about what I think are his two most innovative domestic programs. While I don’t know how Obamacare will turn out, I’m certain that my two favorite Obama initiatives will be transformative.

His Race to the Top program in education has already set off a nationwide wave of school reform, and his Race to the Top in vehicles — raising the mileage standards for American-made car and truck fleets from 27.5 miles per gallon to 54.5 m.p.g. between now and 2025 — is already spurring a wave of innovation in auto materials, engines and software. Obama mentioned both briefly in the last debate, but I want to talk about them more, because I think they are the future of progressive politics in this age of austerity: government using its limited funds and steadily rising performance standards to stimulate states and businesses to innovate better economic, educational and environmental practices.

While it is too scary for Obama to tell people in so many words, his races to the top in schools and cars are both based on one brutal fact: “The high-wage, medium-skilled job is over,” as Stefanie Sanford, a senior education expert at the Gates Foundation, puts it. The only high-wage jobs, whether in manufacturing or services, will be high-skilled ones, requiring more and better education, and Obama’s two races to the top aim to produce both more high-skill jobs and more high-skilled workers.

In the Race to the Top in schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has built on the good works of his predecessor, Margaret Spellings, and President George W. Bush, who put in place No Child Left Behind. Though never perfect, No Child Left Behind was still a game-changer for education reform because it gave us the data to see not only how individual schools were doing but how the most at-risk students were doing within those schools. Without that, educational reform based on accountability of teachers and principals could never start.

The purpose of Race to the Top, Secretary Duncan explained to me, was basically to say that if we now live in a world where every good high-wage job requires more skill, we need to get as many of our schools as possible educating their students “to college- and career-ready standards,” measured against the best in the world, because that is whom our kids will be competing against. “We have to educate our way to a better economy,” Duncan argues. “The path to the middle class today runs straight through the classroom.”

So, Race to the Top said to all 50 states, we have a $4.35 billion fund that Washington will invest in the states that come up with the best four-year education reform plans that have these components: 1) systems for data-gathering on student performance, dropout rates, graduation rates and post-graduation college and vocational school success, so schools are held accountable for what happens to their students; 2) systems for teacher and principal evaluation and support, as well as systems to reward great teachers, learn from their best practices and move out those at the bottom — essentially systems that help elevate teaching into an attractive profession; 3) systems that propose turning around failing schools by changing the management and culture; 4) systems that set college- and career-ready, internationally benchmarked standards for reading and math.

IT is too early to draw any firm conclusions, but Duncan points to some early positives. Some 4,500 state and local teachers’ union affiliates have signed onto their state’s reform proposals, showing they want to be partners. Roughly 25 percent of the turnaround schools, Duncan said, “have already showed double-digit increases in reading or math in their first year and about two-thirds showed gains.” There have also been “huge reductions of discipline incidents.”

Although, over the two years of the program, 46 states submitted reform blueprints — and only the 12 best won grants from $70 million to $700 million, depending on the size of their student populations — even states that did not win have been implementing their proposals anyway. And because 45 states and the District of Columbia adopted similar higher academic standards (known as the “common core”) for reading and math, “for the first time in our history a kid in Massachusetts and a kid in Mississippi are now being measured by the same yardstick,” said Duncan.

In many cases, we have seen as much reform from those “who did not get a nickel as those who got $100 million,” Duncan added. As Jay Altman, the chief executive of FirstLine Schools, which manages the turnarounds of failing schools in New Orleans, put it, “Louisiana ended up not winning Race to the Top, but we got close, and the process stimulated Louisiana and other states to think more broadly about educational reform rather than just approach it piecemeal.”

As for Obama’s doubling of vehicle mileage by 2025, led by his Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation, it’s already driving more innovation in Detroit, as each car company figures out how it will improve mileage by 5 percent every year. The auto industry’s main newspaper, “Automotive News, used to be a sad collection of stories of failing dealerships and excess inventory,” notes Hal Harvey, the chief executive of Energy Innovation. “Now it is one technology story after another, all aimed at increasing fuel efficiency. Engines, transmissions, electrical systems, advanced materials are all in the midst of new revolutions. Finally the engineers are back at work!”

Carl Pope, the former executive director of the Sierra Club, notes that Mitt Romney rejects Obama’s auto Race to the Top and is vowing to import more oil from the Canadian tar sands through the Keystone XL pipeline. “So Romney wants to throw away our cheapest, cleanest oil — the stuff we make in Detroit through greater mileage efficiency — and replace it with the world’s most expensive and dirty oil from the Canadian tar sands,” says Pope. “That’s a swap only the Koch brothers could dream up.”

Yes, the costs for cars with higher miles per gallon will rise a touch, but the savings will be manyfold that amount. The Environmental Protection Agency projects families will save $1.8 trillion in fuel costs and reduce oil consumption by 2.1 million barrels per day by 2025, which is equivalent to one-half of the oil that we currently import from OPEC countries every day. It will cut six billion metric tons of greenhouse gases over the lifetimes of the vehicles sold through 2025 — more than the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the U.S. in 2010.

But remember: It’s all a secret. Don’t tell anyone.