Obama Budgets for Changes to NCLB

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President Obama’s 2011 budget proposals for the Department of Education suggest the president wants to overhaul No Child Left Behind, the main law outlining the federal government’s role in public schools. But it’s unclear whether the administration can successfully shepherd a reauthorization through this Congress, considering its legislative calendar is already brimming with other reform efforts. 

The budget calls for an additional $3.5 billion in education spending, most of which education secretary Arne Duncan would dole out to school districts that have increased testing standards and enforced teacher accountability. Aside from these proposals and Race to the Top (another competitive grant program Duncan introduced last year that challenges states to write ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing comprehensive education reforms) states receive most of their federal education money through well-worn funding streams like Title I for poor students and Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) for students with special needs, formulas that don’t leave room to reward districts that are excelling.

NCLB didn’t leave much room for reward either. It sanctioned districts whose students were not passing and labeled some 30,000 schools as failures, even if their students’ test scores had improved from the previous year. Duncan told reporters in a conference call Monday that these skewed methods of accountability did not reward schools that had, for example, raised the reading proficiency among sixth grade students from a 2nd to a 5th grade level. Instead, NCLB led failing schools to compete in a “race to the bottom” to dumb down standards and get more students to pass. Duncan hopes to replace this broken accountability system with one that measures whether schools are preparing students to graduate high school “college and career-ready,” he said, a process that begins by maintaining students’ grade-appropriate reading levels in elementary school.

Ambitious plan. So will Obama be able to pass it by year’s end?  Not likely said Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, in a blog post last week: “One can only wish them well, but reworking this mosterously complex statute is apt to prove almost as challenging as health care.” And Finn told the New York Times, “The odds of getting a full-dress re-authorization done between now and August are very very slender.”

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