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Wed., March 11, 2009

Our View: Obama’s education plan focuses on accountability

A political cold front has battered No Child Left Behind for quite some time. The goal of this federal foray into education hatched by President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., sounded great. But as with a lot of public policy, the details were bedeviling.

And so here we are facing another large reform effort, this one touted by President Barack Obama. Sounds great, but we hope it can evade the main pitfall of its predecessor: The goal of 100 percent proficiency by the myriad categorizations of students was unrealistic and caused unproductive contortions to meet annual targets. This allowed the program itself, rather than accountability, to become the focal point of education debates.

The good news is that Obama has not taken this occasion to steer education back into the past. Accountability remains the focal point. The bad news is the federal budget itself. Congress must adhere to a pay-as-you-go philosophy, meaning that the reforms outlined by the plan must be met with revenue sources. We cannot afford to merely add on to the ballooning budget deficit.

Obama’s plan is broken into five parts:

1. Boost federal support for “Early Learning Challenge” grants. The research on early learning is clear. Invest in that and you greatly increase the chances of productive citizens down the road, especially among low-income households. In short, education instead of incarceration.

2. Standardize standards. Obama is critical of states making tests easier to meet standards, so he wants the same test for all states. The problem is finding the right test or the right way to assess student learning. States that already have higher standards should be leery of a federal compromise that lowers standards.

3. Focus on teacher training and recruitment. This aligns with states such as Washington that are moving toward merit-based systems that pay more to teachers with hard-to-get skills and carry consequences for teachers who aren’t measuring up.

4. Promotion of innovation and excellence by lifting caps on charter schools. Good idea. Parents need choices when they become frustrated with traditional schools. Charter schools may produce better methods for all schools to use.

5. Boost higher education access by increasing Pell Grant awards and indexing them to inflation. Obama also suggests a tuition tax credit for working families. These ideas tie back into deficit concerns. Congress needs to find a way to pay for this, rather than creating another deficit-swelling entitlement.

Obama’s plan has parts that will annoy traditional liberal and conservative interest groups, but their battles have proved to be unproductive. With the right attention to details and a firm eye on the budget, we think it deserves a chance to succeed.

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