The Obama administration is asking Congress and taxpayers to fund the biggest increase ever requested for elementary and secondary education programs -- up to $4 billion more for schools in 2011. It is a major exception to the White House vow that the federal government needs to "tighten its belt" financially.
The administration is also gearing up to overhaul the accountability system for schools and teachers imposed by the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, opting for a more nuanced, less punitive approach.
"No Child Left Behind did a great job exposing achievement gaps and demanding accountability," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Monday. "But it had many other shortcomings and we need to fix it right away."
Will the extra cash and a new measure of success fix what Duncan calls our "race to the bottom" in America's schools?
Educators say it is too early to tell, but the proposals do appear to target key flaws in the law long decried by teachers, school administrators and legislators of both parties.
The late Sen. Ted Kennedy -- who initially championed No Child Left Behind in partnership with President George W. Bush -- later came to criticize the law for its "one-size-fits-all approach." He said it encourages "teaching to the test" by placing too much emphasis on standardized reading and math test scores for evaluating school and teacher quality.
Schools that cannot demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" in student testing are branded as failures, losing out on federal funds. The law also set a 2014 deadline for all students to meet universal proficiency standards, a goal critics described as unrealistic.
"Most of all, the law fails to supply the essential resources that schools desperately need to improve their performance," Sen. Kennedy wrote in a Washington Post Op-Ed piece in 2008. "Struggling schools can do only so much on a tin-cup budget."
Obama's proposed $3 billion increase for No Child Left Behind would likely be welcome news to Kennedy. There is also an overall increase in Department of Education discretionary programs of $3.5 billion over the previous year. It was praised by educators and legislators alike Monday as helping to close the funding gap.
"[President Obama's] budget sends the right message about balancing incentives with resources -- spurring major school improvements and providing the resources needed to make them," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
The top Republican on the committee, Minnesota Rep. John Kline, has also said "meaningful reform and full funding must go hand in hand."
But some education groups say the new money -- for which states and school districts must "compete" through a national application process -- will create problems of its own.
President Obama's budget proposes $900 million for competitive "school turnaround" grants, $1.35 billion to continue the President's so-called "Race to the Top" compeition for reform, and $1.3 billion in competitive funds to for "bold approaches" to recruit and train effective teachers.
Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, says small school districts, where the superintendent is the only administrator, don't have the resources to compete and will lose out on funds.