Obama delivered his most comprehensive call to revamp former President George W. Bush's signature education law at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, saying the Northern Virginia school embodied the shortcomings of well-intentioned legislation. Despite recent academic progress, the school is labeled as "failing" under benchmarks that critics consider antiquated and overly reliant on standardized testing.
"That way of measuring success and failure, that's the first problem with No Child Left Behind that we need to fix," Obama said during the latest stop in his self-proclaimed "Education Month." "Instead of labeling schools a failure one day and then throwing up our hands and walking away from them, we need to refocus on the schools that need the most help. We need to hold our schools accountable for the success of every child."
Before his speech, the president met with screaming, cheering eighth graders and admitted that, at their age, he "was getting in trouble all the time." He advised his young audience to "have fun, but listen to your teachers, listen to your parents, and make sure that you really are doing everything you can to succeed in school."
Citing new Department of Education figures, Obama said that four out of five schools are not meeting the current rigid standards and that those standards should be modified to focus more on college preparation and student improvement.
The president said it was "inexcusable" that 15 states have lowered their standards to comply with No Child Left Behind. He wants $77 billion in new funding for an education system that lags behind other nations, particularly in math and science. The money would pay for teacher training and thousands of new math and science teachers for the next school year.
"Now, after a decade of deficits, there isn't a lot of money to go around," he said. "I understand that ... we can't be reckless and we can't be irresponsible about how we cut. Let me make it plain: We cannot cut education. We can't cut the things that will make America more competitive."
The president met with Republican and Democratic lawmakers in recent weeks to discuss rewriting the law, and White House press secretary Jay Carney said administration officials "expect bipartisan support to continue."
Although many Republicans soured on No Child Left Behind, they don't want to amplify the federal government's role in education or hand Obama a major political victory. Yet, the president's pitch includes many of the proposals conservatives have embraced, including merit pay and easier removal of ineffective teachers.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been mum on the president's proposal.
"It's certainly an uphill struggle," Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said of Obama's push for more education spending.
But unless Republicans succeed at portraying the president's plan as another example of wasteful spending, Obama might be able gather enough political support to pass it, he said.
"What elected official wants to say I'm against education spending?" Goldford said.