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Administration pushes to rework No Child Left Behind law

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010; A06

The Obama administration launched an effort Wednesday to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law, with a proposed increase in federal spending, a pledge to make the Bush-era school reform program more flexible and an appeal to Republicans for bipartisan cooperation.

To grease the legislative wheels, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, the administration will reserve $1 billion to fund programs that may emerge through a revision of the 2002 law. In addition, he said, President Obama is proposing to raise elementary and secondary education spending by $3 billion in the fiscal year that begins in October.

Overall, Duncan said, the education budget would increase by 6 percent. That would be the most significant annual increase since 2003, not counting the large infusion of funds made last year through the economic stimulus law to prevent teacher layoffs.

With the budget proposal, Obama seeks to turn the page on an era of reform that his predecessor, George W. Bush, defined through a campaign slogan that morphed into a school accountability movement.

No Child Left Behind mandated an expansion of standardized testing to measure progress toward closing student achievement gaps -- and imposed sanctions on schools that fell short. The concept has become ingrained in public education, but many experts say the law is overly punitive and ripe for revision.

"NCLB needs to be fixed right now," Duncan told reporters. "Clearly our goal would be this year."

Enacting a new version of what is formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would be a heavy lift as lawmakers face midterm elections. The law and the issues involved -- standardized testing, teacher quality and many facets of school reform -- are complex. Congress last tried to rewrite the measure in 2007 but fell short.

On Jan. 20, the White House and Duncan convened key Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill to begin developing a road map for revising the law. "It was a very good meeting," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), one of the participants. "It couldn't have been more bipartisan."

"We're stepping off on the right foot," said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the ranking member on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Obama's proposed funding increase includes $1.35 billion for the "Race to the Top" competitive grants for school reform. That would build on a $4 billion grant program launched through the stimulus law. Duncan said the administration is pushing to use more money as an incentive to reform, in contrast to formula-driven spending.

Prominent education advocates said they welcomed more funding. But state budgets, which account for far more of education spending than the federal share, are under enormous pressure because of declining tax revenue. There is huge demand for federal aid for special education and programs for the disadvantaged. And Obama is pushing a raft of initiatives on charter schools, teacher performance pay and other issues.

"Obviously, you're no longer talking about a freeze, and that's moving in the right direction," said Joel Packer, director of the Committee for Education Funding, which represents dozens of education groups. "But there are still going to be a lot of unmet needs that education advocates are going to be working with Congress to try to address."

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