Using federal money as leverage, Obama hopes to prod states to raise academic standards

By Darlene Superville, AP
Monday, February 22, 2010

Obama prods states to raise academic standards

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama wants to rewrite federal education law by sending aid for poor students only to states that adopt new standards to prepare high school graduates for college or a career.

States that fail to raise the bar could lose their share of federal funding, though it’s unlikely that would happen. Administration officials say they expect states will comply to remain eligible for the federal money.

Obama’s proposal, announced Monday, would require a change in the nation’s main elementary and secondary education law, which became known as the No Child Left Behind Act during the Bush administration. The law is up for renewal. Congress so far hasn’t been able to generate a consensus to overhaul it, though key lawmakers said recently they were working on a bill.

Obama wants to expand the federal government’s role in education, which traditionally is a state and local responsibility. His approach has been to use the federal purse as leverage to encourage states to adopt his ideas.

Many schools count on a key source of federal aid, known as Title I, to help disadvantaged students — $14.5 billion this budget year. Under Obama’s proposal, to qualify for that money, states would have to adopt and certify that they have “college- and career-ready standards in reading and mathematics.” The deadline for setting the new standards is 2014.

Obama wants to encourage states to enact education standards that the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers are developing. All states but Alaska and Texas have endorsed the effort; Kentucky adopted the standards earlier this month.

Obama said U.S. students continue to trail in such areas as math and science. Eighth-graders are ninth in the world in math and 11th in science, he said.

Some states “have upped their game,” the president said, citing Massachusetts for having eighth-graders now tied for first in science around the world. But other states have gone the opposite route, with 11 lowering their math standards between 2005 and 2007.

“That may make those states look better relative to other states, but it’s not going to help our students keep up with their global competitors,” Obama told Democratic and Republican governors gathered at the White House for their annual meeting with the president.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Obama is trying to build upon the governors’ hard work. Far too many students graduate high school unprepared for college, he said.

The Obama administration wants to see a uniform set of standards in schools nationwide, in hopes that it will make the U.S. more competitive internationally. Many other countries operate under a single set of standards.

Governors also have been working on the president’s Race to the Top program, which is providing more than $4 billion in grants to states that take a series of steps, including stricter evaluation of teachers and principals. The first awards are due to be announced in April.

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit think tank, said Obama deserves credit for seeking higher academic standards. But she said his proposal would pay states for proposing programs, not showing success.

“The outcome of how well kids do is when we see graduation rates and the careers kids are going into,” Allen said. “It’s not in the input side. It’s on the output.”

Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Libby Quaid contributed to this report.

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