By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; 1:09 PM
Senate Republicans raised questions Wednesday about whether President Obama's plan to turn around struggling schools would fly in rural America. One Democrat said she worried that many states would be shortchanged of federal funding they need to improve teaching.
But for the most part, Education Secretary Arne Duncan drew a positive reception from key lawmakers as he began pitching the administration's blueprint to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law. The central goal, he said, is to replace what is now a pass-fail accountability system with one that rewards academic growth and intervenes aggressively when schools fail.
"This is a set of goals that should invite broad bipartisan agreement," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told Duncan.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), himself a former education secretary, held up the 41-page proposal to revise the 2002 law. "This is a helpful blueprint," Alexander said. "We asked you for it, and we'll now take it from here. It's a good beginning for a complex area."
Teachers unions disagree. The American Federation of Teachers, with 1.4 million members, and the National Education Association, with 3.2 million, have both criticized the plan. "It's still based on narrow, do-or-die, high-stakes tests, where some kids win and some kids lose," Dennis Van Roekel, the NEA president, said in an interview. Teachers, he said, are "tired of the test taking, test preparation, practice tests. They want those tests gone. And they're tired of their profession being attacked."
Duncan, in the hearing, praised teachers for "doing the hard work every day helping our children learn." He said the plan would raise funding for teacher development from $350 million, to $3.9 billion. "We believe there's a lot in the proposal teachers will like," he said.
Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) pressed Duncan on a proposal for interventions such as replacing at least half the teachers in a struggling school, or converting it to a charter school. The options, Enzi said, "seem to be urban-centered [and] may not work in many areas of Wyoming."
Duncan replied that the plan would allow rural schools to be transformed in ways that would work in sparsely populated regions.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she had "serious concerns" about a proposal to shift emphasis toward competitive grants for teacher quality programs. She said formulas were the best way to ensure money is spread evenly, and she criticized the notion that there would winners and losers for important federal aid programs.
Duncan replied: "Honestly, what we don't want to do is fund the status quo."