- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2011

President Obama is hoping the GOP will help him overhaul the No Child Left Behind law in time for the new school year this fall, but it may prove a tall order for a divided Congress that’s preoccupied with talk of cutting spending and creating jobs.

Mr. Obama has intensified his focus on education in recent days, unveiling his federal budget proposal at a magnet school in Baltimore and hosting a bipartisan group of senators at the White House to discuss revamping federal education law passed under former President George W. Bush.

The administration hopes to shepherd through an updated version before lawmakers leave Washington for vacation in August, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Associated Press on Thursday. Echoing previous comments by Mr. Obama, Mr. Duncan said No Child Left Behind, which relies heavily on federal metrics and standardized testing, needs to be made more flexible.

While Republican lawmakers have likewise expressed concerns with the law, previous attempts to rework it have stalled, and it’s not clear this year will be any different - especially in a political environment that’s dominated by the economy.

A spokesman for Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House education panel, said the Minnesota Republican “believes it is more important to focus on the policy and not the process, so he has and continues to oppose a specific timeline.

“He will continue to engage all members in an open process of evaluating the current law and identifying areas in need of reform,” spokesman Brian Newell said.

Mr. Kline and other House lawmakers scheduled to attend the White House meeting had to cancel due to votes on Capitol Hill. The meeting, between Mr. Obama and a group of four senators, was closed to the press but White House spokesman Jay Carney said “it was a good meeting.”

“The president discussed his desire to find common ground on the need to redefine the federal role in education so that it is more flexible and better focused on responsibility, reform and results,” Mr. Carney said. “He discussed raising expectations for students and schools, boosting teacher effectiveness, and providing greater flexibilities to support innovation and improvements throughout public education.”

Mr. Obama has held up education as one crucial area that merits additional spending even as Washington moves to tighten its belt and find ways to cut down on a sky-high deficit.

Arguing that the country with the best-educated children will lead the future global economy, Mr. Obama asked for nearly $5 billion more for education in his budget proposal for 2012, bringing the total request to $77.4 billion. Included is $900 million for another round of his Race to the Top competition and $600 million for school “turnaround” grants.

Mr. Obama’s budget nevertheless makes a series of cuts the president described as “tough choices.” While it maintains the maximum Pell Grant value of $5,500, it eliminates awards for summer school. It would also do away with federal subsidies for graduate student loans that currently prevent students from accruing interest while they are in school.

For their part, the House Republican leadership has, at least publicly, been more focused on jobs and the economy than education, which was not part of their “Pledge to America” promise to voters. But they have continued to push for a restoration of a federally administered D.C. voucher program that Democrats scrapped two years ago, an issue that is sure to come up again this year.

Asked if Mr. Obama would be open to a compromise on the issue, Mr. Carney said the president “doesn’t believe that vouchers are a long-term solution to our education reform needs.”

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