Obama Headed for Fight Over School Spending and Laws

President Barack Obama, who has adopted such traditionally Republican principles as charter schools and teacher merit pay, will meet resistance in a divided Congress over spending and the reach of government in the classroom.

He will showcase an argument for making the United States more competitive in education in his State of the Union address tomorrow, Education Secretary Arne Duncan says.

Obama has said that “the country that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow,” Duncan said in a Jan. 14 interview, and the president will pursue that challenge. “I think you’ll see that reflected in the State of the Union.”

Obama wants to replace President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law, which required student testing and demanded that schools show “adequate yearly progress,” with his own plan for tracking of student progress and training teachers. While Bush benefited from a bipartisan alliance, Obama faces a more divisive atmosphere in the wake of his party’s loss of control of the House and arrival of a Tea Party caucus that has little appetite for federal involvement in local schools.

“There’s going to be a horrific battle about budget cuts” between fiscally conservative Republicans and the White House, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based group that advocates for public education. Republicans may seek 10 percent to 25 percent cuts in the education budget Obama sends Congress next month, Jennings said.

Federal student aid, most of it in grants and loans, rose to $134 billion in the 2009-2010 government fiscal year from $73 billion in 2004-2005, according to the Education Department.

Risk of Falling Behind

Obama, 49, said last month that education is so important to the U.S. ability to compete that it’s one of the areas where he’ll draw the line at spending cuts.

“The hard truth is this: In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind,” he said in a Dec. 6 speech in North Carolina.

Republicans now holding majorities on the House Education and Workforce Committee, which writes education legislation, say they’re skeptical that the government is the solution.

John Kline, 63, of Minnesota, the panel’s new chairman, said in a statement that his goal is to “pull back federal involvement in the day-to-day operation of our classrooms.”

Republican Tim Walberg, 59, of Michigan, also a member of the education committee and chairman of a subcommittee on workforce protections, has said he sees “no place for the federal government in education.”

‘Damaging’ Cuts

George Miller, 65, of California, the panel’s top Democrat, said education programs are particularly vulnerable as lawmakers seek to reduce budget deficits without cutting programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

“The current budget cuts that the Republican leadership is talking about making could turn out to be very damaging to making progress in education reform,” Miller said in a Jan. 21 interview. “It could create a very difficult political situation.”

More than half of the 22 Republicans on Kline’s committee are either members of the Tea Party Caucus or were endorsed by fiscally conservative groups like FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Express, or by former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Miller said he’s still “optimistic” that Kline will be able to bring members of the panel together to work on a reauthorization bill.

Obama’s Plan

Obama is seeking an overhaul of the bottom 5 percent of the nation’s lowest performing public schools, encourages merit-based pay for teachers, supports the creation of charter schools and calls upon states to come to a consensus on standards.

The administration also wants to give school districts the power to apply directly to its Race to the Top program, which enables states with innovative programs to compete for federal money, according to an Obama aide familiar with the plan.

The president may have to settle for a piecemeal approach, “bite-size chunks as opposed to redoing a giant bill,” said Republican Duncan Hunter of California, chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on early childhood, elementary and secondary education. Hunter said he’ll hold hearings to determine the government’s role in education and will look at ways to cut funding for the Department of Education.

“The compromise is going to come from the administration side,” Hunter, 34, said in a Jan. 13 interview. “It’s about pushing the power down to the lowest level, getting the federal government off of schools’ backs and off of states’ backs with unfunded mandates, unfair mandates, unrealistic mandates.”

Democrats’ Reservations

In the Senate, where Obama’s party retains control, many Democrats may balk at the president’s plans to consolidate federal programs, said Mike Petrilli, Vice President for National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

What’s more, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which together represent about 4.6 million educators, have expressed disappointment with Obama’s proposal.

“There’s no track record for simply saying that if you have a couple of charter schools the other schools will get better because of the competition,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, in an interview. “There’s no track record for paying a couple of teachers more and then thinking it’s going to turn everything around.”

Whether Obama can push his measure through depends on how much the new Republican House speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, wants to work with him, said Petrilli. A decade ago Boehner, as chairman of the education panel, teamed with Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, to help pass Bush’s signature legislation.

Spending Cuts

So far this year, there’s been no communication between the White House and Boehner’s office on Obama’s education plan, said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the speaker. The speaker has more pressing issues, Buck suggested.

“The new House majority is going to focus on the people’s top priorities first - cutting spending and creating jobs,” Buck said.

Obama also faces Republican opposition on another education front: his efforts to tighten regulation of Apollo Group Inc., operator of the University of Phoenix, and other for-profit colleges.

Education Secretary Duncan has said that for-profit colleges lure many students into high-priced, low-quality educational programs and loan agreements.

For-Profit Schools

Kline has said he’ll try to halt a department proposal that would link for-profit colleges’ eligibility for government grants and loans to the income and loan repayment rates of former students.

Duncan said in September that a complete version of the rule will be published early this year. Kline also said he’s looking at a 1998 rule that limits the portion of for-profit colleges’ revenue that can come from federal student grants and loans.

On the broader education reauthorization measure, failure to act this year would put more schools at risk of being labeled failures, says Miller.

“More and more schools are going to bump up against the requirements of student progress and school progress that they’re not going to be able to meet,” Miller said.

That would mean “less money for poor children and disabled children,” said Jennings of the Center on Education Policy. About one-third of U.S. schools are considered failures under the current law’s guidelines, according to Jennings’s group.

Duncan said he’s still “hopeful” that Congress can agree on an education bill this year.

“There are no guarantees on any of this,” Duncan, 46, said in a Jan. 14 interview in his office on the top floor of the Department of Education, a block-long building at the foot of Capitol Hill. “There are lots of chances it may not happen.”


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