- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2011

Saying local school districts need greater flexibility to meet federal standards, President Obama on Monday called on Congress to revamp the No Child Left Behind law in time for the school year that begins this fall — a request that may be a tall order for a Congress dominated by talk of budget cuts.

The administration has previously pushed for changes to No Child Left Behind, but Mr. Obama’s announcement at an Arlington middle school marked the first time the president has set a public timetable for overhauling the 2002 law, which relies heavily on federal metrics and standardized testing. He said the goals of the law — teacher excellence, accountability and attention to the achievement gap among minority and disabled students — are the right ones, but that better metrics are needed.

“We need to make sure we’re graduating students who are ready for college and ready for careers,” Mr. Obama told the crowd at Kenmore Middle School. “In the 21st century, it’s not enough to leave no child behind. We have to help every child get ahead.”

The president has twice in recent weeks hosted a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House to discuss reforming the law, and said he’s encouraged by interest from both sides of the aisle. But it’s not clear that the GOP-controlled House will go along with the White House’s ambitious goal of finishing up work in time for the next school year.

Reacting to Mr. Obama’s speech, the Republican head of the House education panel warned against setting an “arbitrary timeline.”

“We need to take the time to get this right. We cannot allow an arbitrary timeline to undermine quality reforms that encourage innovation, flexibility and parental involvement,” said Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Of course, the current political atmosphere makes an overhaul of federal education rules all the more difficult, given lawmakers’ focus on reducing the deficit. Seeking to head off those concerns, Mr. Obama acknowledged that the reforms will cost money, but urged Congress to make room by cutting the budget elsewhere. He said he wouldn’t accept cuts that undermine U.S. competitiveness.

“We cannot cut education. We can’t cut the things that will make America more competitive,” he said.

According to the Education Department, more than 80 percent of public schools nationwide are in danger of being labeled as “failing” under No Child Left Behind. Mr. Obama said it’s clear the number is “out of line” and called for better methods of measuring success and failure.

“We need to not only hold failing schools accountable, we need to help turn those schools around,” Mr. Obama said.

He touted the success of the administration’s Race to the Top grant program, which awards states that overhaul their education laws to better assess college readiness and transform failing schools. The White House has asked for an additional $900 million next year to devote to the program, which Mr. Obama said he wants to expand to local school districts.

One item Mr. Obama did not mention in his speech that has drawn intense interest from House Republican leaders is a D.C. school-voucher program that was discontinued under Democrats. A bill to reinstitute the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program passed the House oversight panel last week and a companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut independent.

“The American people need to know if President Obama is prepared to stand against union pressure when they oppose innovative education programs and reforms that help our students,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, who urged Mr. Obama to support the effort.