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States setting pace on school change; Obama agenda stalled in Congress

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; A03

While states are moving fast to overhaul public schools, President Obama's education agenda is hitting a wall in Congress.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Tuesday that the District and 18 states, including Maryland, remain in the running for a share of $3.4 billion in the federal Race to the Top competition, with winners to be announced in September. The contest, funded by the 2009 economic stimulus law, has fueled support for making student achievement a significant factor in teacher evaluations and pay, easing limits on public charter schools and embracing national standards.

But those breakthroughs have come as election-year divisions have emerged in Washington over federal education policy. Efforts to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law have failed to yield a bipartisan bill.

There is a growing sense on Capitol Hill that the law enacted in 2002 under President George W. Bush will remain at least until next year, even though Obama pledged repeatedly as a candidate in 2008 to revise it. The law, which stresses annual standardized testing, is controversial in part because a third of public schools are now labeled as failing to meet standards.

Despite pleas from Duncan and Obama, it also appears increasingly unlikely that the Democratic-led Congress will provide a bailout for schools this summer to prevent teacher layoffs and program cuts related to local budget troubles.

"I have a suspicion we're going to have a deadlock for the next two years," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy and a former Democratic congressional aide. He said that Republicans might not have an appetite to work with Obama on education and that the president's political capital on the issue "has pretty much been spent."

Other analysts said the administration is continuing to muster support for funding efforts to reform education. That could extend the upheaval in school policy unfolding in the states. For example, education authorities in 28 states and the District have given full or preliminary approval to national standards in English and math -- a politically unthinkable development just a few years ago.

Race to the Top "has caused more change in education policy among states in a short period of time than we've ever seen," said Cynthia G. Brown, vice president for education policy of the pro-Democratic Center for American Progress. "We've had huge change, not just in Washington, D.C., but around the country."

The other finalists are Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina. Seventeen states were eliminated from this round of the competition.

Duncan told the National Press Club on Tuesday that the administration is focusing more attention than ever on the lowest-performing schools. He praised local unions for teaming with school boards on experiments in performance pay and evaluation. "We're building on what we know works -- and doesn't work," Duncan said. "And while there are still some honest policy disagreements among key stakeholders, there is far more consensus than people think."

Duncan has become one of the most influential education secretaries in the three decades since the department was founded. He designed Race to the Top, which tries to engineer reform through incentives rather than mandates, and he helped push Congress to eliminate a federal student loan program that provided huge public subsidies to private lenders.

In March, Duncan released a blueprint for a revision of No Child Left Behind. It continued the administration's emphasis on competitive grants and called for ending the use of "adequate yearly progress," a performance measure derived from annual test scores, to rate schools.

Under current law, all students tested are supposed to show proficiency in English and math by 2014, and schools are supposed to make adequate progress toward that goal from year to year. Obama and Duncan are seeking to replace that goal with a new target: having all students on track for college and careers by 2020. Schools would get more credit for individual student growth and would be subject to fewer federal mandates unless they have a long record of poor test scores.

So far, the blueprint remains only that. Hearings have been held in the House and Senate. Talks among key lawmakers are ongoing. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, said he remains optimistic that the House will act on a revision. But no bipartisan bill has been introduced, and there have been no committee votes. Prospects for action are dimming rapidly as November's elections approach.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), a key Republican on education, called the issue dead for the year. "I'd say time is up," Alexander said Tuesday. "I don't see it happening."

Duncan said in a brief interview that he wants action now but that "if it goes early next year, that's good, too."

This week, the NAACP, the National Urban League and some other civil rights groups criticized elements of the administration's policy that favor competition. "If education is a civil right, children in 'winning' states should not be the only ones who have the opportunity to learn in high-quality environments," the groups wrote in a 17-page proposal for revising No Child Left Behind. They said Obama should put more effort into spreading education resources equitably.

Administration officials say they have long been concerned about education equity.

Obama is expected to elaborate on school reform in a speech Thursday to the National Urban League.

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