Education Reform: Obama's Bipartisan Issue?

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President Obama speaks to third- and fourth-graders during their lunch period at Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md., on Oct. 19, 2009

When the bare-knuckled brawl over health care reform finally wraps up and the Obama Administration pivots to less divisive topics, education reform may be one of the few issues capable of drawing bipartisan support. The Administration's proposed overhaul of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act could resonate with Republicans, many of whom have been disappointed with the results of George W. Bush's signature education initiative. President Obama's blueprint, which was sent to Congress on Monday, sets forth an ambitious national standard — to have all students graduate high school ready for college or a career by 2020 — but leaves the specifics on how to achieve this goal up to state and local authorities. "Yes, we set a high bar," Obama said in his weekly radio address. "But we also provide educators the flexibility to reach it."

With more than 1 million high school students dropping out every year and the U.S. lagging behind many of its competitors on achievement benchmarks, no one can argue with the need to better prepare students for college and beyond. NCLB, which earned broad bipartisan majorities when the legislation passed in 2002, has drawn praise for shining a light on achievement gaps by forcing the nation's 99,000 public schools to disaggregate student data. But the legislation's emphasis on accountability and standardized testing has had some unintended results. By requiring schools to demonstrate adequate yearly progress — toward a goal of 100% proficiency in reading and math by 2014 — Bush's landmark bill has led many districts to narrow their curricula and some states to lower their standards in order to meet annual targets.

The Obama Administration is trying to remove NCLB's "perverse incentives," as Education Secretary Arne Duncan has termed them, and measure school performance against a new yardstick: improvement among individual students. "NCLB says that a fifth-grade teacher who helps a student reading at a second-grade level reach a fourth-grade level within one year has missed their goal," Duncan said in a statement unveiling the proposal. "In fact, that teacher is an excellent teacher and should be applauded."

Obama's proposal, which calls for increasing federal aid to schools by 16% in 2011, to $29 billion, would leave identifying and fixing chronically low-performing schools to officials on state and local levels and curtail federal intervention in most others. The plan would also swap out NCLB's sticks for carrots — a strategy that Duncan is already using in his $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative that encourages states to pass education reform so they can be eligible to compete for grant money.

But as Duncan prepares to testify before the House Education and Labor Committee on Wednesday, he's facing fire from all sides. The committee's ranking Republican, John Kline, issued a tepid appraisal of the proposed changes, applauding Duncan for "his bipartisan approach to reform," while noting that "there are clearly still major differences from across the spectrum about the best path forward."

But although Kline voiced concern about "federal intrusion into our schools," Mike Petrilli, vice president for programs and policy at the Thomas E. Fordham Institute, an education-reform think tank, argues that Obama's blueprint outlines a hands-off approach that would allow states to craft standards and liberate teachers from the test-heavy focus that became a hallmark of NCLB. "This should be a huge victory for many of the education groups that for years have been complaining about the onerous accountability burden coming from Washington," says Petrilli, who served in the Bush Administration's Department of Education. "I think this is a more humble and realistic federal role."

Rick Hess, education-policy director at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, agrees with Petrilli. "The proposal is a big win for the teachers' unions frustrated with NCLB's Rube Goldberg–esque interventions, heavy-handed reliance on math and reading tests, and byzantine [adequate yearly progress] rules," Hess said in a blog post.

But union leaders — perhaps still reeling from Obama's recent support for the decision to fire 93 teachers at a struggling school in Central Falls, R.I. — skewered the new White House plan, charging that it shifted an unfair burden onto educators. "We were expecting to see a much broader effort to truly transform public education for kids," Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said in a statement. "Instead, we see too much top-down scapegoating of teachers and not enough collaboration." The plan puts "100% of the responsibility on teachers and gives them 0% authority," says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

The unions, which have long been a key Democratic constituency, issued such scathing assessments of Obama's education-reform blueprint that even some fellow party members were mystified. "It's like they didn't read the document," says Charles Barone, director of federal policy at Democrats for Education Reform. "Apparently their definition of a partnership is that they're the bully and you're the weakling on the playground."

Observers of all political stripes seem to agree that Obama's plan is ambitious but short on specifics. For starters, it's unclear how quickly states would be able to codify collective standards for college- and career-readiness — which would most likely require new exams and curricula — and already Alaska and Texas have signaled that they don't intend to cooperate in the effort. Education-reform experts have also expressed reservations ranging from the feasibility of the plan's college-and-career-ready timeline to its ability to motivate schools that fall in the middle of the pack in terms of performance. But by both limiting the scope of federal involvement and sketching out sweeping reforms, Obama is attempting to position education reform as an issue both parties can line up behind. "It is a dramatic revolution in the way we do school," says Amy Wilkins, vice president at Education Trust, an advocacy group that works to bridge achievement gaps. "Nobody could disagree with the aspiration. The problem is the connective tissue to get us there."