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Obama's Education Wish List May Have To Wait

Jan 4, 2009 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Early on in his campaign, Barack Obama's education agenda included a long wish list of proposals for early childhood education, dropout prevention and after-school and college outreach programs among others. Obama called it his "Children First" agenda.

With the economy on life support and just about every state now slashing education funding, President-elect Obama is likely to focus less on his wish list and more on the political consensus he says he wants to build around education.

"For years, we've talked our education problems to death," he said last month. "Stuck in the same tired debates, Democrat versus Republican, 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."

Jeannie Allen of the Center for Education Reform, which promotes school choice and charter schools in particular, says, "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."

What About No Child Left Behind?

Allen says Obama might not be confrontational by nature, "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.'"

And to do that, Allen says, the president-elect must first deal with the No Child Left Behind law and its future. Many in Congress want to tweak the law. Some want a complete overhaul.

Obama will come under a lot of pressure to water down the law, Allen says, noting that he must protect two key mandates at all costs: "We need to keep the testing in place at the federal level, and we need to make sure bad schools close if they fail to comply."

It's not clear whether 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.

An 'Engine Of Opportunity'?

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. He says it would douse the energy that his education proposals have generated.

"People are really engaging and believing in turning public education into the engine of opportunity it needs to be," Rotherham says. "The thing that will disappoint people is if that energy and if that excitement does not translate into bold action from Washington."

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 Obama to promote his reform agenda and get teachers on board.

"The way that President-elect Obama has talked about merit pay [is] to reward excellence in teaching. But doing it in a way that isn't seen as anti-teachers is a crucial element," Williams says. That's something, he says, that has been missing in discussions about merit pay for a long time.

Education Aside, Children First

Whatever he decides to tackle first, Obama needs to get the nation to think about children and what they need, Williams says.

Amy Wilkins of The Education Trust, an advocacy group for low-income, minority children, agrees. She says if Obama makes the quality of poor youngsters' lives — not just their schooling — a priority, he will have done the boldest thing of all.

"There has for so long in this country been the very 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," Wilkins says. "These are kids who have never been a priority in this country."

She wonders, though, whether Obama really has the political will to change that, especially if it comes with a hefty price tag. And that brings us back to Obama's long wish list for education. Because unless the economy bounces back soon, that's all it is: a wish list.

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In this occasional series, NPR will follow the transition from one administration to another through a series of stories, conversations, commentaries and essays that will outline the many issues and challenges facing the new occupant of the White House. From a broken military to a troubled economy to a National Park Service in need of a major overhaul — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.

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