Obama's Long Education To-Do List Awaits Action

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In his first 100 days as president, Barack Obama has proposed a more expansive federal role in education from cradle to college.

A short list of his numerous education proposals includes: uniform standards for preschool programs; rigorous tests and academic standards for public schools; merit pay for classroom teachers; a longer school day and school year; and a national strategy to address the high school dropout crisis.

In numerous speeches, the president has called these proposals "the pillars" of his plan to improve education in America.

"The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy; it's unsustainable for our democracy; it's unacceptable for our children. And we can't afford to let it continue," Obama said in a speech last month.

Obama's education proposals would make any local school board member dizzy, says Jeanne Allen, who heads the Center for Education Reform and is an advocate of charter schools and vouchers. Besides, she says, Obama's agenda is nothing more than a wish list.

"Despite all the great rhetoric about fixing America's schools coming out from the Obama administration in the first 100 days, it is not translating into more quality choices for children," Allen says.

School reform has taken a back seat to fixing an economy still on life support. Critics say the $100 billion in stimulus funds that Obama requested for education come with few strings attached and no incentives for reform.

But the extra money has bought Obama a lot of good will, especially in states facing teacher layoffs and deep budget cuts in education.

In the long term, Obama has vowed to break free from what he calls "the old, tired Washington debate over education — Democrats versus Republicans, federal versus local control, more money versus more reform."

"There's been partisanship and petty bickering, but little recognition that we need to move beyond the worn fights of the 20th century if we're going to succeed in the 21st century," Obama said in March.

This kind of talk, for now, has earned Obama support from conservatives and liberals alike. Republican leaders in Congress, for example, lauded Obama's choice for education secretary, Arne Duncan. Even teachers' unions have agreed to consider what was once unthinkable: linking teacher pay to students' performance, one of Obama's campaign promises.

"I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences — the stakes are too high. We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children's teachers and the schools where they teach," Obama said.

Andy Rotherham, a top adviser to the Obama campaign, disagrees with critics who say the president is proposing a bigger federal role in education. He says Obama just wants a more effective role.

"This president clearly did not come to Washington to be an observer," Rotherham says. "He has a big agenda and he has a lot of things he wants to get done. The things he's talking about doing, though, generally do play to the federal government's strength."

Still, most of Obama's education agenda in the first 100 days has been talk, with a couple of exceptions: He has increased funding for Pell Grants for college students and has begun overhauling the federal student loan program.

The president argues that bypassing banks entirely and having the U.S. Education Department issue federal loans directly to college students would save about $48 billion over the next 10 years. The proposal has divided college officials, and banks are gearing up to oppose it.

The loan question is likely to become the first big fight over education policy that the president will face beyond his first 100 days in office.

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