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Obama's Quiet Success on Schools

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

President Obama's health-care proposals are under attack from the left and right. His bid to overhaul the financial regulatory system is foundering. His effort to institute a cap-and-trade regime to combat global warming is all but dead for the year.

Beneath all this headline turmoil, Obama is overseeing a quiet upheaval in the nation's approach to education from preschool through college. I've been somewhat skeptical of the president's ability to pull this off, questioning his determination to stand up to two political giants: the student-lending lobby and teachers unions.

The final results aren't in. The biggest challenge -- overhauling the No Child Left Behind law -- has no clear legislative path in sight. But when the National Education Association unloads on an Obama administration proposal to promote charter schools and teacher accountability as a "series of top-down directives," you know the administration is doing something bold.

So this is an appropriate moment for me to eat at least a spoonful of crow.

"There's this sort of slow, persistent progress," says Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, a leading advocacy group for education reform. "If this were a football game, there are not a lot of those long dramatic passes, but this is a ground game where they are grinding out big important change without a lot of fanfare."

As with any major renovation, money helps -- a lot.

The House approved legislation last week to transform the federal student-lending program. If the Senate signs on, private lenders, who prospered with the twin benefits of fat federal subsidies and guarantees of the loans they issued, would be moved aside in favor of direct lending by the government.

The Clinton administration tried to take this sensible step 16 years ago, only to be slapped down by the private-lending lobby. Now, while not certain, the change is apt to happen -- in no small part because the administration pushed to allow the change to be done under the budget "reconciliation" process, requiring 50 votes rather than 60.

Cutting out this "unwarranted subsidy," as Obama put it in a speech Monday, would free up almost $90 billion over 10 years. The House would use the largest chunk of that money to raise Pell Grant amounts for low-income college students; the grant amounts have lagged far behind increases in tuition costs.

The money is also directed in other, innovative ways. About $10 billion would go to community colleges -- the biggest infusion of federal cash ever to these institutions.

Colleges would get $2.5 billion to figure out how to keep track of how many students manage to graduate, as opposed to piling up debt and then dropping out. In the House, private colleges were able to wiggle out of this requirement; the Senate ought to hold them to it.

Another $8 billion would go to early childhood education programs, which vary widely in quality, with the goal of establishing some standards and accountability for preschool programs.

Meanwhile, the administration has seized on education funding in the stimulus bill to push its reform agenda. The stimulus included $4.35 billion for competitive grants to states to improve elementary and secondary education -- the largest-ever amount of discretionary federal funding for school reform. The administration's proposed regulations on these Race to the Top funds require that any state wishing to compete for the money must lift restrictions on the number of charter schools and get rid of laws or rules that prohibit linking teacher pay to student performance.

Seven states -- Tennessee, Rhode Island, Indiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado and Illinois -- have revoked their limits on charter schools. The California legislature set aside a 2006 law that prohibited using student performance data to evaluate teachers.

Finally, the appropriations bills moving through Congress would further the reform push. Most important, they would dramatically boost funding -- from $97 million in 2009 to as much as $446 million in 2010 -- to offer higher pay to teachers and principals who improve performance in high-poverty schools.

So far, so good -- assuming that squeals from the teachers unions don't result in watering down the Race to the Top rules. But the real test will be whether the administration takes on the task of overhauling No Child Left Behind to maintain the law's focus on holding schools accountable while building some needed flexibility into judging school performance.

On education, the administration gets high marks for its first semester. The final exam is still to be administered.

marcusr@washpost.com

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