During his State of the Union address on January 25, President Obama outlined his plan for how the United States can “win the future” by out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building the rest of the world. Part of his plan included a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
“If we want to win the future—if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas—then we also have to win the race to educate our kids,” Obama said. “Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us—as citizens, and as parents—are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.”
Obama praised the Race to the Top competition, calling it the “most meaningful reform of public schools in a generation.” He credited it for encouraging over forty states to raise their standards for teaching and learning through the state-led Common Core State Standards Initiative and said it should serve as a model for making ESEA “more flexible” and “focused on what’s best for our kids.”
In a statement in reaction to the State of the Union, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) said the president’s “vocal support will only add to the efforts already underway in Congress to pass meaningful education reform.” However, Kline also expressed concern with the president’s request for additional money for Race to the Top.
“Congress should not be cutting blank checks to the administration, especially when our national debt exceeds $14 trillion,” Kline said. “This request is especially offensive in light of the federal government’s failure to keep its promise to fund special education. No one can justify funding new federal programs at a time when unfunded federal mandates are increasing the strain on states’ already-strapped budgets.”
The day after the State of the Union, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held a joint conference call with key senators to express the sense of urgency and bipartisanship surrounding the work on ESEA reauthorization. “[There is] strong interest in fixing NCLB from both sides of the aisle … as well as from governors of both parties and local education leaders from across the country,” Duncan said. “People realize that the current NCLB law has many flaws from mislabeling to overreaching to lowering standards. On many issues, Democrats and Republicans can share a common sense agenda.”
Duncan was joined on the call by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Mike Enzi (R-WY), top Republican on the Senate HELP Committee, and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush.
During the call, Enzi said he and Alexander had identified nine key areas within NCLB that need to be fixed. Specifically, he noted that the requirement that all students be 100 percent proficient in reading and math by 2014 was a “delicate goal.” Alexander said he was glad to see the president give a lot of attention to the importance of education to the nation’s future in the State of the Union. He praised Duncan and Harkin for “creating an environment” that will allow them to work toward a consensus and sounded a positive note for ESEA reauthorization in 2011.
“I don’t want to make it sound like it’s going to be a piece of cake or too easy, but we’re off to a good start,” Alexander said. “I appreciate the chance to work on it and I look forward to coming up with a consensus that both Democrats and Republicans can support in this year—and the president can sign—to fix the problems with No Child Left Behind.”
Enzi added that Kline and Representative George Miller (D-CA), top Democrat on the committee, have also been involved in negotiations. “So we not only have a bipartisan but we have a bicameral [process] where we’re working with the House already on this, too,” Enzi said. “And I think down the road, that will lead to much faster, more agreeable solutions and that’s what we want to have.”
When asked specifically about a timeline for the bill, Harkin said, “I think we’re at a position now to move quickly” and said his goal was to have a bill ready for markup in committee by the Easter recess and ready for the president’s signature by late summer. He noted several areas of consensus that have already emerged, including fixing the accountability system, targeting interventions at the lowest-performing schools, advancing teacher evaluation and improvement systems, and restoring flexibility to states so they can provide innovative and localized ways to help students succeed.