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No Education Agenda Left Behind Becomes Obama Legal Hurdle

Obama has called for changing the nation’s main public education law, No Child Left Behind, by the start of the next school year. Photographer: by Mario Tama/Getty Images1
Obama has called for changing the nation’s main public education law, No Child Left Behind, by the start of the next school year. Photographer: by Mario Tama/Getty Images1

June 21 (Bloomberg) -- When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he pledged to “fix” the No Child Left Behind federal education law and to promote rigorous standards, merit pay and policies that made it easier to remove low-performing teachers.

As Obama -- who sold himself as a politician who could forge bipartisan compromise -- seeks re-election next year, Congressional gridlock has halted his plan to change No Child Left Behind. While more than 40 states have signed onto parts of the rest of his agenda, state budget cuts threaten to undermine districts’ efforts to carry it out.

“These are blue times -- sad times,” said Jack Jennings, a former general counsel for the House Education committee who called it the worst environment for education funding since Ronald Reagan proposed abolishing the Education Department in the 1980s. “You have less money. You have deadlock.”

Calls from business executives and families to improve education and U.S. competitiveness risk being ignored or deferred, much like plans to recast Social Security and Medicare, said Jennings, who now heads the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is pressing ahead, saying that while budget cuts are “a real challenge,” they won’t derail his agenda because more than 40 states have already started instituting what he called in some cases “breathtaking” changes.

‘Tough Decisions’

“These budget times are forcing us to make very tough decisions,” Duncan said in a telephone interview. “Often in crisis comes opportunity.”

Seventeen months before Election Day, Obama needs a “win” on his education plans, said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report. While jobs will be the top priority, education is a “factor in defining the candidates,” he said.

Obama has called for changing the nation’s main public-education law, No Child Left Behind, by the start of the next school year. His plan, announced in March 2010, would let schools be judged on subjects other than reading and math, responding to criticism that the law’s standardized-testing is narrowing what is being taught. It would also stop labeling schools under a pass-fail system that Duncan said encourages a dumbing down of standards to qualify for federal money.

Instead, the plan would require action to turn around the lowest-performing schools, the bottom 5 percent, and provide financial rewards for top performers.

Government Involvement

While Republicans have criticized No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law in 2002 by Republican President George W. Bush, they said Obama’s approach involves the federal government too much in education, traditionally the province of states and districts. No broad reauthorization of the law has been formally introduced, giving Congress less than three months to meet the administration’s deadline.

Republicans say they are planning to accomplish the task through a series of targeted bills, two of which have been introduced. One is aimed at promoting the growth of charter schools -- privately run public schools -- and another seeks to cut spending by eliminating half of the federal education programs under the current law.

Schools are coming up to another deadline. If they don’t show that all students are proficient on state standardized reading and math tests by 2014, they could lose federal funding. That prompted Duncan to announce June 10 that he is considering granting waivers to states to ease parts of the law if they agree to unspecified “reforms” favored by the administration.

Budget Cuts

Liberty County School District in Florida is running out of time. Liberty’s $9 million budget has been cut by more than a third since the 2007-2008 school year as federal stimulus money dried up and the state budget shrank amid declining tourism. The 1,300-student district cut 14 people from its 216-member staff and risks having to eliminate classroom teachers next year, Superintendent Sue Summers said in a telephone interview.

Under No Child Left Behind, all three Liberty schools are labeled as failing because a relative handful of students aren’t making adequate progress, even though they will be getting A and B grades on Florida state academic report cards, Summers said.

Under the federal law, the system has to set aside about $80,000 -- enough for two teachers -- for a tutoring program that could be eliminated under a revamp of the law, Summers said. She is also trying to come up with new teacher evaluations and a curriculum to meet national standards.

“If they cut $100,000 from my budget, I’ll have to cut something big,” Summers said. “I won’t be able to open schools. I won’t be able to provide transportation or I won’t be able to provide lunches.”

Money Dangled

To achieve Obama’s goals, Duncan has dangled money before states, especially through his $5 billion in Race to the Top grants, the biggest pool of discretionary federal education money in U.S. history.

Republicans say Duncan is wielding too much power.

“More and more Americans have recognized that this intrusion of the federal government has not helped, it has gotten in the way,” said John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Education Committee.

As federal lawmakers debate, more than 220,000 teachers and other educators could lose their jobs in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the American Association of School Administrators.

Washington state cut $1.7 billion from this year’s education budget. As a result, school districts will get $5 million, rather than $20 million, to help them pay for a new teacher evaluation system tied to student performance.

Education Exit

Some governors, state school officials and superintendents who support Obama’s approach have also left their posts, threatening the drive to tie teacher pay to performance and establish national academic standards, said Michael Cohen, an assistant education secretary under President Bill Clinton.

Cohen cited the departures of Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek and district schools chiefs Joel Klein of New York City and Michelle Rhee of Washington.

The new generation of school leaders is just as committed to Obama’s policies as Rhee and Klein, Duncan said.

Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have signed onto U.S. academic standards proposed by the nation’s governors and school chiefs, the Education Department said. Sixteen states changed laws so they can take action to replace staff in low-performing schools. Twenty-two states enacted laws to improve teacher quality. Illinois just passed legislation that makes it easier to remove underperforming teachers, Duncan pointed out.

Poorly Educated

Businesses say a poorly educated workforce is hurting their bottom lines. Intel Corp., the world’s largest chipmaker, is trying to fill 2,895 U.S.-based engineering positions, according to Lisa Malloy, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara, California-based company.

RightNow Technologies Inc., which helps businesses offer online and live-chat customer service, typically goes through about 100 resumes to hire one person who has the necessary math, science and computer technology training, said Greg Gianforte, chief executive officer and founder of the Bozeman, Montana-based company.

“We need reform,” Gianforte said in an interview. “Without highly educated and motivated individuals, we don’t have a future.”

To contact the reporters on this story: John Hechinger in Boston at; Kate Andersen Brower in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at

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