Obama Faces Fierce Fight to Keep Education Promises

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008; Page A02

President-elect Barack Obama has made big promises to educators, parents and the nation's nearly 50 million public school students. He vowed to recruit an "army of new teachers," create better tests and give public schools more funding. He also said he would make college more affordable.

As the new administration prepares to take over the Education Department, school experts say one of Obama's first -- and toughest -- jobs must be restoring the broad bipartisan support it took to pass the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which aims to boost the achievement of poor children. That consensus has splintered, with people on both sides of the aisle souring on the law as it is overdue for reauthorization in Congress.

"Forget the details of No Child Left Behind. The big challenge there is having to rebuild that bipartisan coalition," said Gary Huggins, director of the Commission on No Child Left Behind, an independent effort of the Aspen Institute. "On the Democratic side you have people walking away from it because of union pushback. On the GOP side you have people walking away because this is too large a federal footprint."

Helping ensure college access is likely to be the next president's most pressing education priority. The financial downturn has raised concerns about the continuing availability of student loans. On Thursday, the Education Department announced plans to expand purchases of the loans it backs, the most recent of several steps to help avert a student loan crisis.

"The most immediate issue is just the question of stability within the student loan programs," said Alexa Marrero, spokeswoman for Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. "If we realize there's a problem, it will be too late."

But it is Obama's vision of refining the federal role in America's classrooms that may be the biggest political and policy challenge. He inherits an agency -- and a law -- that is seen by some local schools and union leaders as focusing more on sanctions and policing than on helping build better schools.

The Education Department, created in 1980, has a $68.6 billion annual budget and plays a relatively minor role in financing for the nation's public schools. Much of its kindergarten-through-12th-grade spending focuses on helping students from poor families. But No Child Left Behind, enacted under President Bush, ushered in unprecedented federal influence in classrooms with a massive expansion of testing. With the aim of having all children proficient in reading and math by 2014, schools must meet steadily rising test score goals or risk sanctions as severe as a forced management shakeup.

Federal education officials have supported states in creating tests and improving instruction, but the Bush administration also has clashed with local school leaders over testing requirements, even threatening to withhold federal dollars.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is known for experimenting with ways to make the law more flexible for schools and states but also for protecting what she calls the law's "bright line" testing and accountability regimen.

Previous secretaries, including William Bennett in the Reagan administration, Lamar Alexander in the George H.W. Bush presidency and Richard W. Riley in the Clinton administration, have used the office as a platform to push for one brand of school reform or another. Various names have been floated as possible successors to Spellings, but no clear front-runner has emerged.

On Thursday, Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, called on the incoming administration to "facilitate, not dictate."

Efforts in Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind stalled as lawmakers awaited a new president. On his campaign Web site, Obama promised to "improve NCLB's accountability system so that we are supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them." And he said he would support merit pay programs designed in concert with teachers.

Education experts say the next president will have to put a leader at the helm of the department who can reinvigorate support for the federal role in reforming public education. People in both major parties have railed against, and rallied for, No Child Left Behind.

In a letter this month to the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) called No Child Left Behind "the most massive shift from personal freedom to government intervention." Hoekstra wrote: "Once you've sold out parents and children, voting for massive spending increases to fund NCLB, selling out freedom in other areas became very easy, almost necessary."

The Democratic-supporting teachers unions aren't happy either. The National Education Association has called the law "prescriptive and punitive."

But an unusual coalition of business and civil rights leaders, including the Business Roundtable, the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, supports the law.

They worry that too many revisions will weaken the government resolve to force schools to help disadvantaged students.

"The big challenge for President-elect Obama is he's going to have to appease the reformers, but also the teacher's unions, and that's going to be a delicate dance," said Michael J. Petrilli, who was associate assistant deputy secretary in the Education Department from 2001 to 2005 and now works at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education think tank. "They are all going to be watching for signs that he's with them."

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