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The Monitor's View

Education reform: Can Obama’s budget rescue No Child Left Behind?

His emphasis on incentives may win over critics. But that effort won’t be worth it if he also waters down standards with new ‘college and career readiness’ benchmarks. 

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / February 2, 2010

The controversial No Child Left Behind law is stuck in detention. States and teachers unions shake their fingers at it, complaining of impossible-to-meet standards, overreliance on student testing, and lack of funding. Eight years into the law, Congress has yet to reauthorize it.

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President Obama hopes to change that. His education budget calls for Congress to renew NCLB this year, and if it does, he will then propose $1 billion in added education spending for the states. It’s indicative of his overall approach to education reform – dangling carrots to encourage frozen bunnies to hop. To push lawmakers along, he’s also suggesting significant alterations to the law that the administration hopes will satisfy critics without sacrificing accountability for learning students.

But is Mr. Obama trying to square a circle – an impossible task in Euclidean geometry? Can the critics be mollified and standards upheld?

In the president’s favor, education reform is one area where Democrats and Republicans have drawn closer together. The NCLB Act, passed in 2001, was the result of a major bipartisan effort between President Bush and the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. The goal was to move all public school students to math and reading proficiency by 2014. The leverage of school choice and withheld federal funding was supposed to push failing schools into compliance.

But states bristled at federal intervention in an area that’s largely their domain. They complained of another “unfunded federal mandate.” Obama’s proposed budget tries to meet this criticism with a spending increase of just over 6 percent. It’s one of the few areas of the federal budget (besides national security) where the administration is not cutting or freezing spending.

However, even record federal spending on education won’t rescue the states. The US government provides only 7 cents for every dollar spent on education. NCLB has to be seen as a national goal, not a means. It is still up to states and school districts to do their job of educating America’s students. Maybe Obama’s 6 percent increase will quiet those complaints, but more likely not.