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Panel: U.S. Should Create National Standards, Spend Billions More on Pre-K-12 Schooling

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A liberal-leaning group of political leaders and education policy experts is urging a new set of strategies for boosting the quality of public education in the United States, including voluntary national academic standards, preschool for every child, an extended school day and year, and a massive new amount of federal spending on education—at least $325 billion over the next 10 years.

Members of an education policy task force, including Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, made their recommendations public on Aug. 23 at the National Press Club.

The panel’s report, “Getting Smarter, Becoming Fairer: A Progressive Education Agenda for a Stronger Nation,” originally was designed as a response to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 law that requires every state to test students in grades 3-8 in reading and mathematics, among other reforms.

Gov. Napolitano, who likened the challenge of improving U.S. schools to the 1960s’ race to the moon, said the task force’s report does not stress “failure” or test scores only, as some educators contend is the case with NCLB, but calls for other ways to hold schools accountable. She said new investments in education and national attention to workforce issues will help America keep pace with the fast-developing economies of China and India.

“My friends, we’re in the midst of an international brain race,” she said, adding that moving on the task force’s recommendations would “give notice to the world that the race is on.”

The panel’s other leaders, New York investment firm executive Philip D. Murphy, and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and writer Roger Wilkins, said American democracy is threatened without more attention to educational improvement from political leaders and the public.

“It’s not so much the challenge outside [the U.S.] that I care so deeply about. It’s the challenge inside—Appalachia, Indian reservations,” and other poor sections of the country, said Mr. Wilkins, a former District of Columbia school board member who teaches history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

The task force and its report were sponsored by two liberal-leaning think tanks, the Center for American Progress and the Institute for America’s Future, both based in the nation’s capital. John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff under President Clinton and the president of the Center for American Progress, said last year that the 12-member task force would be bipartisan and would examine issues without regard to politics.

But only one task force member was introduced as a Republican: former U.S. Rep. John H. Buchanan of Alabama, who sounded a liberal tone in calling for special attention to equal educational opportunities for poor and minority students and their families. “Equity is what we need the most,” the Republican said. “We have to put our money where are mouths are.”

Task-force leaders acknowledged the costs of their proposals would be staggering for federal and state governments.

Mr. Murphy, a senior director at the Jersey City, N.J. -based Goldman, Sachs & Co. said he hoped to convince other business leaders and government officials that such spending would be a worthy investment. “You have to phase stuff in,” he said in an interview. “You can’t do it overnight. That’s probably the only pragmatic solution” to the costs. Traveling internationally, he said he understood “up close and personal the threat to our economy, and frankly, our civilization’s place in the world” if the United States doesn’t take action.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Education were not immediately available for comment on the report.

The task force held six hearings around the nation earlier this year to gather ideas about what the public wants from schools. Comments from those hearings were used in developing the report, Mr. Podesta said.

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