State Lawmakers Unhappy With Obama Priorities

Legislators in various states are urging federal policymakers in Washington to reconsider their involvement in public schools. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), located in Denver, criticized the No Child Left Behind Act five years ago because it infringed on the states’ authority over K-12 education. Now, members of the NCSL argue that the new policies introduced by the Obama administration are just as controlling and intrusive.

In a recent report released by the NCSL, lawmakers state that the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law have been replaced by unproven approaches in the programs put forth by President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. These new approaches, such as expanding standardized testing and implementing rewards and penalties for schools based on student performance, have caused states to scramble and rewrite laws in order to be eligible for federal Race to the Top grants. This grant program, totaling up to $100 billion for public schools under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, has coerced states into adopting policies that may not necessarily improve student achievement, according to the lawmakers.

Robert H. Plymale, a Democratic state senator from West Virginia and co-chairman of the NCSL task force, expressed concern about states having to drastically change their laws without knowing if they will receive any funding. Education department officials working under President Obama have claimed that they are taking a different approach compared to the No Child Left Behind Act. Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the Education Department, stated that President Obama and Secretary Duncan both believe in being strict about the goals but lenient about the means when reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The NCSL task force, consisting of members from both political parties, met multiple times between April 2008 and July 2009 to gather input from education experts. Several task force members were also involved in creating a previous NCSL report with recommendations for changes to the No Child Left Behind Act. Stephen M. Saland, a Republican state senator from New York and co-chairman of the task force, noted that the recession and states facing financial hardship led to an overwhelming number of states applying for the Race to the Top grants. Saland compared it to standing in a soup-kitchen line, desperate for assistance.

Despite the differences in school improvement priorities between the Obama administration and the No Child Left Behind Act, state lawmakers argue that the approach remains the same. The new focus areas include linking teacher performance to student data, implementing common standards and assessments, using data to inform instruction, and addressing the lowest-performing schools.

The state lawmakers claim that the federal government should allow states and local school districts to handle the majority of K-12 policymaking. However, they also call for increased funding from the U.S. Department of Education for disadvantaged students and those with disabilities. The report emphasizes the need for nonpartisan research that can guide states and districts in making critical policy decisions. According to the NCSL, the federal government currently allocates slightly over 7 cents of every public dollar to K-12 education, excluding the one-time funds provided through the economic stimulus package. In 2006-2007, the federal contribution was slightly higher at 8.5 percent. Given these figures, the lawmakers argue that the federal government’s influence on policy is disproportionate to its financial stake in the outcome.


  • ernestfarley

    Ernest is a 26-year-old education blogger and teacher who writes about a variety of topics related to teaching and learning. He has a passion for helping others learn and grow, and believes that education should be accessible to everyone. Ernest is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, and he has taught high school students in the United States, Mexico, and Chile.