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No Child Left Behind: Why Congress will struggle to hit Obama's deadline

President Obama wants No Child Left Behind revised by the fall. The Senate is working toward a bipartisan compromise, but House Republicans want to shrink the federal role in education.

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A telling sticking point is whether to renew funding for President Obama’s signature Race to the Top grants. In an unprecedented move, the Democrat-controlled Congress gave the Education Secretary Arne Duncan a $4 billion fund to use at his discretion to leverage education reform. The Obama administration calls Race to the Top the most effective program in the department’s history and is proposing $1.4 billion to fund the program for the balance of the fiscal year.

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But the Republican-controlled House last month voted to zero out funding for the program. “The federal role in education is a history of underperformance, hype, and false promises,” said Rep. Peter Roscam (R) of Illinois, the chief deputy whip, at a press briefing on Feb. 28.

Federal standards: a brief history

The move to involve the federal government in standards-based reform has been a priority of the last four presidents. Despite opposition from GOP conservatives, President George H. W. Bush launched the concept with the support of top business groups. President Clinton, who campaigned to become “the education president,” won legislation that used federal aid to leverage more accountability for results.

With the support of then-Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio, President George W. Bush passed NCLB, which gave Washington a heightened role in the nation’s classrooms. It set up rules to measure whether schools were demonstrating “adequate yearly progress” in reading and math, including a goal that all children should reach proficiency in these fields by 2014.

Republican conservatives went along during the NCLB debates. But with the federal deficit at $1.6 trillion, House conservatives – especially many in the 87-member GOP freshmen class – are now pushing back.

“There’s a strong element in the Republican caucus that wants to do away with a federal role in education,” says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy. “The prospects of getting reauthorization are improving because of the president and Senate leadership, but the main obstacle will be the tea party in the House.”

Sharp cuts in federal education funding could threaten implementation of several reforms, such as common core standards in English and math already adopted by 43 states. Another possible casualty would be systems to measure the effectiveness of teachers – a key to the reform goal of rewarding teachers according to their ability to raise student achievement.

Says Mr. Jennings: “The reforms may be stillborn because there won’t be the money to put them in place.

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