Will Obama's Timeline to Reform No Child Left Behind Get Schooled?

Concerns over federal spending may derail Obama's call for education reform.

WASHINGTON, March 15, 2011— -- Reforming the Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law might be one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, but with budget battles brewing on Capitol Hill, getting it done might not be so easy.

President Obama urged Congress earlier this week to send him a new education law by the time students head back to school this fall. Today Obama came out in defense of that deadline, arguing that, despite budget concerns, education is "an investment in our future."

"We think that the time is now to do it and there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to get it done by August," Obama said in an interview with ABC affiliate KOAT-TV in Albuquerque, N.M.

Although there is bipartisan support for reforming NCLB, education policy experts and lawmakers alike criticized the president's "arbitrary" timeline.

"We need to take the time to get this right -- we cannot allow an arbitrary timeline to undermine quality reforms that encourage innovation, flexibility, and parental involvement," House Committee on Education and the Workforce chairman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said Monday.

Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational policy think-tank, said the deadline, while perhaps unrealistic, helps shine a spotlight on the issue.

"I think that's useful. This is what president's do; they create a sense of urgency," he said. "But I don't think many insiders have much optimism that deadline will be met."

Beyond the timeline, the biggest challenge facing reform of NCLB is the budget battle brewing on Capitol Hill. In fiscal year 2010 the bill cost more than $12 billion, a number that may be hard for many to tolerate in a year when all federal spending seems to be on the table.

"The biggest obstacles are the House Republicans," Petrilli said. "They are the wild cards."

Half of the Republicans on Kline's key House committee, which will have a commanding influence over reforming the law, are freshmen members.

"The tea party folks were elected to reduce the size of the federal footprint," he said. "The next version of No Child Left Behind I think is going to be scaled back, but the question is whether it's being scaled back enough."

Obama Says Education Is One Area That Shouldn't Be Cut

The president, however, said education is worth the price.

"I do think that at the state as well as at the federal level we recognize that investments in education are an investment in our future," Obama said in his interview with KOAT-TV. "I would rather see us make cuts in some things that we don't need to make sure that we're funding the things that we do."

The president also noted that the reform doesn't necessarily mean more spending.

"Reform doesn't always mean more money, in some cases it's a matter of 'Are we using resources more wisely?'" he said.

While the details of a reform bill remain unclear, the shortcomings of NCLB are well known.

The current 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.

Critics, and the Obama administration, claim the current system encourages states to lower, or "dummy down," standards so they can report better progress.

Today, according to the administration, 37 percent of America's schools are not meeting their annual targets mandated by NCLB. That number could more than double to more than 80 percent of schools in 2011, according to the Education Department.

"While No Child Left Behind helped expand the standards and accountability movement, there is much that needs to be fixed," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday. "We don't need another study. We must stop simply admiring the problem. We need action."