The Five Biggest Education Stories of 2013

Published December 18, 2013

Education reporting is often treated as the armpit of the newsroom, where editors assign new reporters or lump the subject in with coverage of parades and spaghetti dinners. But most states spend half their budgets on education, and what happens in the schools mightily influences these young citizens who will become voters. So what’s happened this year within those glue- and fingerpaint-stained walls, anyway? Among this year’s five biggest education stories, some were well-reported, but others were not.

5. The rise and waning of excitement about online education and MOOCs. Last year, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) dominated the media. Hundreds of thousands of kids taking Stanford and MIT classes across the world, online, for free? Sensational. This year, TED Talk promises of revolutionizing learning hit the real world, as Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun’s pioneer partnership to give kids credit for MOOC classes through the University of California-San Diego flopped. Half the kids in Udacity classes passed, whereas three-quarters of students taking the same classes on campus passed.

Schools also have been rushing into huge technology buys, largely driven by the 2014–15 deadline for taking all-online Common Core national tests. Despite all the shiny new, expensive gadgets, research still shows just adding computers does not benefit students, just like adding projectors and correspondence courses and smart-boards didn’t, either.

4. Birth-rate decline. Big-city school systems finally began to confront the reality of declining enrollment, a problem projected to hit smaller cities and suburbs within the next decade. Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago lead the way as the nation’s most desperate school districts. Philly schools almost didn’t open on time this fall, and Chicago is reeling from its pension obligations. The nation had its lowest birth rate on record this year, declining from an already-shrunken parent generation. That foreshadows further cuts to one of the largest professions in the country.

3. School choice continues to spread. This year brought choice to three more states and eight expansions of existing programs. Voucher proposals also hit more blue states this year, including Montana, New Jersey, New York, and Washington, and more Democrats have begun to break with the party’s tight union ties and endorse the idea. The most prominent of them is probably New Jersey’s new U.S. Senator, Cory Booker.

In March the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the nation’s broadest voucher program. The state legislature promptly expanded it. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled 2–1 in favor of the nation’s first school-district-run vouchers. Ohio introduced its fifth voucher program, on June 30.

But the state many targeted for a dramatic school choice victory sat still. Texas declined to follow the rest of the nation’s GOP states in offering families the opportunity to send their children to better-performing private schools while saving taxpayers millions.

2. Obama administration overreach. The administration continued to sidestep Congress in pursuing its agenda, including issuing a second set of No Child Left Behind waivers requiring states to redistribute good teachers equally across schools. NCLB, the most expansive federal education law, does not let the U.S. Department of Education demand state policy changes in exchange for the waivers, but that hasn’t stopped Obama. So far, most states seem more willing to bend over for federal money than stand up and sue to stop such overreach.

The administration also sued to stop predominantly poor, black children in Louisiana from leaving failing schools using state vouchers, on the grounds this would upset court-mandated race enrollment percentages in some schools. Even the Washington Post called the administration’s move “bewildering” and “perverse.”

1. The Year of Common Core. Distracting from debates over school choice, a set of national curriculum and testing mandates began to dominate education news in 2013. Although the media framed the debate as the Tea Party versus the GOP establishment, lefties from union locals to the newly formed Badass Teacher Association also oppose the centrally determined list of what K-12 kids must know in math and English and the corresponding federally funded national tests. In 2013, 16 states formally reconsidered the initiative, three decided to pause implementation, and another four rejected the national tests.

If it survives these challenges, Common Core will determine what almost every child in the country learns, through tests that influence school funding, teacher evaluations, school restructuring, and more. The public debates, which pit Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio against former Gov. Jeb Bush and governors such as Bob McDonnell and Mike Pence against John Kasich and Rick Snyder, will lead to contentious statehouse sessions as legislatures return to work this January.


Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute and a 2013 Novak journalism fellow.