LIANE HANSEN, host:
Early in his campaign, Barack Obama's education agenda included a long wish list of proposals - early childhood education, dropout prevention, after school and college outreach programs. He called it his Children First agenda. In the latest installment of our "Memo to the President" series, NPR's Claudio Sanchez examines what educators want the president-elect to focus on first.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: With the economy on life support and just about every state now slashing education funding, President-elect Barack Obama is likely to focus less on his wish list and more on the political consensus that he says he wants to build around education. Here's Mr. Obama last month in Chicago right before he introduced his nominee for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.
President-Elect BARACK OBAMA: For years, we've talked our education problems to death in Washington, but we failed to act, stuck in the same tired debates that have stymied our progress and let schools and parents to fend for themselves. Democrat versus Republican, vouchers versus the status quo, more money versus more reform, all along failing to acknowledge that both sides have good ideas and good intentions. We can't continue like this.
Ms. JEANNIE ALLEN (Founder and President, Center for Education Reform): The most important thing that Obama can do right now, which he started doing in that speech, is remind the American people that we have a crisis.
SANCHEZ: That's Jeannie Allen, head of the Center for Education Reform, which promotes school choice and charter schools, in particular. She says Mr. Obama may not be confrontational by nature.
Ms. ALLEN: But he has the capacity and popularity to go out in a dramatic and forceful way, really get everyone's attention and say, look, we are not going to deal with unions and business as usual anymore. We are not going to allow parents to send their kids to failing schools and be told to wait a few years.
SANCHEZ: And to do that, Allen says, President-elect Obama must first deal with No Child Left Behind and its future. Many in Congress want to tweak the law. Some want a complete overhaul. Allen says Mr. Obama will come under a lot of pressure to water down the law, but he must protect, at all costs, two key mandates.
Ms. ALLEN: We need to keep the testing in place at the federal level, and we need to make sure that bad schools close if they fail to comply.
SANCHEZ: It's not clear, though, whether Mr. Obama wants to be heavy-handed in holding states and school districts accountable for students' progress. He has said repeatedly that the law relies too heavily on standardized tests to determine if a school is doing a good job or not. But he also says there should be consequences if failing schools don't improve. Andy Rotherham, a top Obama adviser, says that what the president-elect should avoid is getting bogged down in political skirmishes over No Child Left Behind. Rotherham says it would douse the energy that his education proposals have generated.
Mr. ANDY ROTHERHAM (Adviser to President-elect Obama): And people are really engaging and believing that we can really turn public education into the engine of opportunity that it needs to be. And so, the thing that will disappoint people is if that energy and if that excitement isn't translated into really bold action from Washington.
SANCHEZ: One example of bold action could be a push for merit pay for teachers. Joe Williams, head of Democrats for Education Reform, says it would be a perfect opportunity for Mr. Obama to promote his reform agenda and get teachers on board.
Mr. JOE WILLIAMS (Head, Democrats for Education Reform): The way that President-elect Obama has talked about merit pay to reward excellence in teaching. But doing it in a way that isn't seen as anti-teachers is a crucial element to this, which was missing in a lot of the discussions on things like merit pay for a long time.
SANCHEZ: Whatever he decides to tackle first, William says, Mr. Obama needs to get the nation to think in a broader sense about children and what they need. Definitely, says, Amy Wilkins of The Education Trust, an advocacy group for low-income, minority children. She says if Mr. Obama makes the quality of poor kids' lives - not just their schooling - a priority, he will have done the boldest thing of all.
Ms. AMY WILKINS (Principal Partner, The Education Trust): There has, for so long in this country, been the very sort of strong, overarching story that there are some kids who are so damaged by their circumstances - whether that's poverty, whether that's immigration status, whether that's racism - that there are a set of kids who are so damaged they can't learn. These are kids who have never been a priority in this country.
SANCHEZ: Wilkins, though, wonders whether Mr. Obama really has the political will to change that, especially if it comes with a hefty price tag, which brings us back to Mr. Obama's long wish list for education. Because unless the economy bounces back soon, that's all it is - a wish list. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
HANSEN: You can read more "Memos To The President" at npr.org.