WASHINGTON, Feb. 2, 2010— -- 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.
Will Obama's Big Budget for Education Leave Small Districts Behind?
"[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.
"That has been communicated to us extensively by our members -- they're telling us, 'Hey, I'm the superintendent, basically the chief cook and bottle-washer in our community and it's just me and I don't have the capacity and ability to start writing applications,'" he said.
Mark Stevens of the Colorado Department of Education told ABC News most states spent an average of 800-900 hours putting together applications for the Obama administration's Race to the Top program.
Some states that do receive funds say they still feel constrained by the requirements attached to them.
"The federal attempt thus far -- from the mid-1990s through today -- is really just usurping the role of states and localities," said David Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures of federal education standards. "They say, 'You have to do this, this and this'… but what they should be doing is pushing states to lower dropouts, achievement gaps and focus funding on outcomes."
Shreve says that although the details are still unclear, the administration's plan does appear to be a step in the right direction towards "outcome-based measures" of student and school success.
A New Goal of "College or Career Ready"
Secretary Duncan said 48 states are working together to develop a common definition of what it means for students to be "college- or career-ready." The new multi-faceted measure will be the cornerstone of a revamped system of funding schools based on progress towards that goal.
The existing law rates schools and students based on strictly on test achievement, with a deadline of 2014 for every student to be performing at grade-level.
"It was a utopian goal," schools superintendent of Loudoun County, Va., Ed Hatrick told ABC News, "not that we want to leave any child behind, but our measure for how we leave a child behind was far less than perfect: 50 different methods of standardized testing and we didn't have a nationalized standard."
Hatrick and other school administrators say a more appropriate standard -- now proposed by the Obama administration -- should be 'progress,' not pass-fail.
"If I'm a sixth grade teacher and a student comes to me three grades behind, reading at the third grade level, and they leave me just a year behind, they're still behind -- and in the old system I'd have been labeled as a failure, the school would have been labeled a failure, but I've accelerated their learning. They've had two years of growth for a year's instruction. Not only is that teacher not a failure, I would argue that teacher's an extraordinary teacher," Duncan said.
Accountability of teachers, a hallmark of the No Child Left Behind law, is not going to go away, officials say, it's just going to be different.
"We are anxious to work with the administration to reauthorize the [No Child Left Behind law] in a way that celebrates successful students, educators, and schools," said National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel. "We don't know all the details of the proposals suggested by President Obama in his State of the Union address, but we agree with him that one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education."
The current No Child Left Behind education law -- approved by Congress with overwhelming support in 2001 and signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 -- requires students to be measured through standardized tests. Currently, states set their own standards for academic success and may risk federal funding if they fail to show adequate yearly progress in achieving their goals.
ABC News' Mary Bruce contributed to this report.