Obama Calls for NCLB Fix, Warns Against Ed. Cuts

By Alyson Klein — March 14, 2011 6 min read
President Barack Obama greets members of the audience after speaking at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va., on March 14.

President Barack Obama on Monday called on Congress to revise the No Child Left Behind Act in time for the start of the new school year, while pledging to block any congressional attempt to cut education spending amid a continuing federal budget battle.

There were no NCLB policy prescriptions in the speech that educators and lawmakers hadn’t already heard from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who as recently as last week urged Congress to renew the law on the same timetable.

But President Obama’s talk at a Virginia middle school was the first time he had devoted an entire speech to renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is seen as a rare area of potential common ground between the administration and Republicans in Congress. The NCLB law is the current iteration of the ESEA.

“I want every child in this country to head back to school in the fall knowing that their education is America’s priority,” Mr. Obama said. “Let’s seize this education moment. Let’s fix No Child Left Behind.”

In his speech at Kenmore Middle School, in Arlington, Va., Mr. Obama hewed closely to the policy proposals unveiled a year ago in the administration’s blueprint for revising the law.

The blueprint, which has never been formally introduced as legislation, calls for replacing adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the accountability system at the heart of the law, with a new metric aimed at gauging whether students are ready for post-secondary education or the workforce.

It also calls for allowing states more flexibility to intervene in schools that are failing to meet the law’s achievement targets, while keeping a tight federal focus on those that are perennially struggling.

Mr. Obama in his speech also repeated the blueprint’s call for a new focus on teacher effectiveness and accountability, coupled with ensuring that teachers are fairly paid and properly supported. The blueprint proposes that states set a definition of teacher effectiveness, which would be incorporated into educator evaluations.

“What we need to do is a better job preparing and supporting our teachers, measuring their success in the classroom, holding them accountable,” the president said. “We’re going to have to stop making excuses for the occasional bad teacher. We’re going to have to start paying good ones like the professionals that they are. If we truly believe that teaching is one of the most valued professions in society—and I can’t think of a more important profession—then we’ve got to start valuing our great teachers.”

Replacing AYP

To underscore the urgency around ESEA reauthorization, Mr. Obama said that more than 80 percent of schools will be “labeled as failing” this year, a point that Mr. Duncan made in testifying before House lawmakers last week.

In fact, the school where Mr. Obama delivered the speech is going to be unfairly viewed as “failing” under the law, the president said. He appeared to acknowledge pushback to the administration’s estimate of how many schools would fall short, including from some experts generally sympathetic to the administration.

“Skepticism is somewhat justified,” Mr. Obama said. “We know that four out of five schools in this country aren’t failing. So what we’re doing to measure success and failure is out of line.

“In fact, the list of supposedly failing schools includes schools that are actually making extraordinary progress—including Kenmore. So, yes, we’ve still got more work to do here at this school to close the achievement gap.” But he added, “Kenmore is thriving. You guys are doing great. You got more work to do, but you’re doing fine.”

The school has not met the law’s achievement targets in reading and math for black and Hispanic students, and students with disabilities. The only student group meeting proficiency in math is white students.

Congressional Movement?

Key lawmakers have been meeting with Secretary Duncan for over a year to discuss ESEA reauthorization. And members have been personally engaged in a bipartisan way. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee; Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the panel’s top Republican; Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., have been meeting twice a week, for a couple of hours at a time to talk about a revision of the law.

Such a sustained level of lawmaker involvement has been highly unusual on Capitol Hill, particularly in recent years; typically congressional staff members take the lead on discussions of legislation.

Still, there are plenty of political hurdles to getting a bill through Congress by the administration’s timetable. For instance, Democrats remain divided on issues such as paying teachers for their performance, and Republicans are trying to figure out the right role for the federal government in K-12 policy. Some freshmen members, particularly those associated with the tea party movement, campaigned on getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education.

A key Republican signaled that Congress may need more time to craft the legislation.

“The president’s remarks affirm the importance of fixing the nation’s broken education system,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “We need to take the time to get this right—we cannot allow an arbitrary timeline to undermine quality reforms that encourage innovation, flexibility, and parental involvement.”

Budget Showdown

Mr. Obama also said he would reject any attempts by Congress to cut education funding to balance the budget. He likened his approach to the kind of decisions a family would make in trying to cut back on spending—the last thing they would touch, he said, would be their children’s college fund.

Lawmakers are still struggling to hammer out a budget for the rest of the fiscal year. High-profile education programs—such as Striving Readers and the Even Start Family Literacy Program—have already taken a hit in the stopgap spending measure that is funding the federal government through Friday.

And the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has shown support for slashing Pell Grants for needy college students, Head Start, Title I grants to districts, and money to turn around low-performing schools.

Mr. Obama said the nation must rein in spending.

“We can’t be reckless, and we can’t be irresponsible about how we cut. Let me make it plain: We cannot cut education,” he said. “A budget that sacrifices our commitment to education would be a budget that’s sacrificing our country’s future. That would be a budget that sacrifices our children’s future. And I will not let it happen.”

For their part, education advocates say the White House push could prove helpful in moving discussions on the education law forward.

“We’re heartened [by the speech] and very much committed to the idea of getting ESEA reauthorization” completed, said Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member union. She said the president has made it clear since his State of the Union address that ESEA is one of his top priorities. The remarks today signaled that the president doing his part to keep the White House involved in the process, she said.

But Ms. Kusler cautioned that “it isn’t just about getting a law done. … We want to make sure the [new] law focuses on the right things.” She listed as top priorities for the union using measures beyond just standardized tests to demonstrate student growth, building capacity in the lowest-performing schools, and “elevating the teaching profession.”

Vic Klatt, a principal at Penn Hill Group, a government-relations and advocacy organization in Washington, and a long-time aide to Republicans on the House Education committee, said that there is a lot of consensus on education when it comes to “big picture issues.”

“Everyone agrees that we need to do something,” he said. But “everybody is not there on the details. ... The details are hard, really hard. That’s why it’s taken so long” to pass a reauthorization bill.

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Obama Calls for NCLB Fix, Warns Against Ed. Cuts

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