Education reform: Obama budget reboots No Child Left Behind

President Obama's federal budget seeks to recast fundamental parts of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform. But Congress could put up stiff resistance.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Joined by Education Secretary Arne Duncan (left), President Barack Obama greets students at Graham Rd. Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia January 19.

The Obama administration envisions big changes for No Child Left Behind.

Included in Monday’s 2011 budget proposal were some significant – and controversial – shifts in federal education policy, even though a formal plan for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (better known as No Child Left Behind) has yet to be submitted.

Among the changes Obama wants is a scrapping of the yearly benchmarks that are the cornerstone of NCLB. This would also mean a nullification of the 2014 deadline for all students to be declared proficient.

The administration would like to replace the annual yearly progress (AYP) benchmarks with new standards based on college and career readiness. But those have yet to be developed.

The Obama administration also wants to shift how federal education dollars are disbursed. Currently, funding is driven by a formula. Obama would like to see that system include more competitive grants.

“It’s clear that they are about leveraging change,” says Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs at the Education Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to closing the achievement gap.

Race to the Top redux

Any effort to reform Title I, the biggest formula-driven federal grant, and demanding more in exchange for the money would be "terribly important and could bring powerful change,” says Ms. Wilkins.

In many ways, the proposed changes represent an extension of the strategies the Department of Education has already been using through Race to the Top,
its competition to distribute some $4 billion to the states that are the most reform-minded.

The proposed changes – especially to the longstanding funding formulas, which allocate money based on the number of students, and particularly poor students, in a district – will likely be difficult to get past Congress, says Andrew Rotherham, publisher of Education Sector, an independent think tank.

A number of education experts said that, at first glance, the proposals promise a shift to a more nuanced method for determining accountability and a more forceful federal role in education reform. But the changes outlined in the budget are broad and not yet fleshed out, they add.

“It’s a very unusual budget proposal,” says Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It depends on legislation that doesn’t exist and hasn’t been submitted by anybody.”

Details, details

For example, with the college- and career-ready standards that the administration plans to use as its new benchmark for progress, “the devil is in the details,” Mr. Whitehurst says. Those standards currently don’t exist.

Still, getting rid of the 2014 deadline and the current AYP system of measuring schools’ progress is likely both a positive and a necessary change, say some education experts.

“The 2014 goal was, as [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan said, Utopian,” says Jack Jennings, executive director of the Center on Education Policy.

Reauthorization may be difficult, given how contentious negotiations are likely to be and the fact that it’s an election year filled with other issues. But if Congress does reauthorize NCLB, Obama has promised to ask for another $1 billion in competitive grants – a carrot for legislators eager to bring their states more money.

“It was a bold budget in that sense,” says Whitehurst. “I view the budget as signaling both in intent and optimism that they think it will be reauthorized this year.”


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