RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Barack Obama has proposed a more expansive federal role in education from cradle to college. The proposals he's putting forward in his first 100 days are so numerous and so sweeping that some say the president sounds more like the nation's school superintendent.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez has this review of the president's education agenda.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Here's a short list of President Obama's education proposals: uniform standards for preschool programs, rigorous tests and academic standards for public schools, merit pay for classroom teachers, lengthening the school day and school year, 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.

President BARACK OBAMA: The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy. It's unsustainable for our democracy. It's unacceptable for our children. We can't afford to let it continue.

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

Ms. JEANNE ALLEN (Founder and President, Center for Education Reform): 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.

SANCHEZ: School reform has taken a back seat to fixing an economy still on life support. Critics say the $100 billion in stimulus funds President Obama requested for education comes with few strings attached and no incentives for reform. But the extra money has bought Mr. Obama a lot of goodwill, especially in states facing teacher layoffs and deep budget cuts in education.

In the long term, President 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.

Pres. OBAMA: 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

SANCHEZ: This kind of talk, for now, has earned Mr. Obama support from conservatives and liberals alike. Republican leaders in Congress, for example, lauded Mr. 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.

Pres. OBAMA: 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ANDY ROTHERHAM (Cofounder and Publisher, Education Sector): This president clearly did not come to Washington to be an observer.

SANCHEZ: 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 just wants a more effective role, says Rotherham.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: 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.

SANCHEZ: Still, most of what Mr. Obama has done in the last 100 days is talk about his education agenda, with a couple of exceptions: He's increased funding for Pell Grants and 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 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. It's likely to become the first big fight over education policy the president will face beyond his first 100 days in office.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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