Obama: Rewrite No Child law before next school year

March 14, 2011

President Obama asked Congress on Monday to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law by fall, escalating the urgency of his campaign for an overhaul of public education.

Speaking at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington County, Obama set his first public timetable for legislators to revise the nine-year-old law, which in recent years has lost much of its luster.

“I want every child in this country to head back to school in the fall knowing that their education is America’s priority,” Obama said in the school’s gymnasium. “Let’s seize this education moment. Let’s fix No Child Left Behind.”

Whether lawmakers can fulfill his wish to approve a bill by the end of summer is unclear. The law — enacted in 2002 under President George W. Bush — addresses school performance ratings, standardized testing, teacher quality, academic standards and equity for the poor.

Those issues will produce prolonged debate. But lawmakers are likely to raise other topics, such as merit pay for teachers and public vouchers for students to attend private school, that would further complicate the politics of education reform.

Talk of rewriting the law has surfaced repeatedly since 2007 but has died out just as often without congressional action of consequence.

Key lawmakers have been meeting with administration officials on the subject for more than a year but have yet to introduce a major bipartisan bill. Last week, Obama met with House and Senate education leaders at the White House in talks that Republicans and Democrats described as productive.

In addition, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Wednesday that 82 percent of public schools are in jeopardy of missing annual targets in reading and math, up from 37 percent last year.

Several education experts have challenged that estimate as overstated. But administration officials say the projected spike in the failure rate should spur action.

No Child Left Behind requires testing every year in reading and math to gauge how much progress schools make in closing achievement gaps. Those that fall short of targets can face penalties up to a state takeover.

Obama’s plan calls for less-intrusive federal oversight for most public schools but more aggressive efforts to fix the lowest performers.

Kenmore, which focuses on arts and communications technology, has missed its targets for several years. More than half of the school’s 710 students come from families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To reach the targets, Principal John Word said, the school is seeking to boost test scores of students with disabilities and of those who speak English as a second language.

The law is broken, Word said. “I’m ecstatic and delighted to hear he’s going to fix it,” the principal said of Obama.

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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