WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Saturday promised to rewrite America's sweeping and controversial education law known as No Child Left Behind with a plan to prepare students for life after high school and to place better teachers at the blackboards.
Obama said he would send Congress his proposed overhaul of the 2001 education law that focused on accountability in the classroom but has fallen short of its original goals.
The announcement's timing suggests Obama is looking beyond the health care reform proposal that still lingers in Congress, has delayed the president's international trip next week and threatens his party's electoral prospects in November.
Education -- unlike proposed financial regulatory reform or environmental laws also on Congress' radar -- is a kitchen-table issue certain to resonate with voters looking at Republicans seeking to retake both chambers of Congress in the November elections. Few voters oppose the principle of improving education.
"Under these guidelines, schools that achieve excellence or show real progress will be rewarded, and local districts will be encouraged to commit to change in schools that are clearly letting their students down," Obama said his weekly radio and Internet address.
"For the majority of schools that fall in between -- schools that do well but could do better -- we will encourage continuous improvement to help keep our young people on track for a bright future, prepared for the jobs of the 21st century."
Although Obama's weekly address was short on specifics, the president has been clear he is eyeing sweeping change. He has already been using federal money as leverage to push schools to raise standards and prepare more children for college or work.
He included $3.5 billion in last year's economic stimulus bill to help low-performing schools and has proposed $900 million for states and school districts that agree to drastically change or even shutter their worst-performing schools.
The administration also proposed setting aside $50 million for dropout prevention programs, including personalized and individual instruction and support to keep students engaged in learning, and using data to identify students at risk of failure and help them with the transition to high school and college.
Only about 70 percent of entering high school freshmen go on to graduate. The problem affects blacks and Latinos at particularly high rates.
Obama sought to assuage critics of the law who complain the current design is heavy-handed and too reliant on Washington. He said states and local schools -- not Washington -- would lead the way to change No Child Left Behind.
"What this plan recognizes is that while the federal government can play a leading role in encouraging the reforms and high standards we need, the impetus for that change will come from states and from local schools and school districts," Obama said. "So, yes, we set a high bar. But we also provide educators the flexibility to reach it."
That rhetoric is popular in local school districts, where parents like their children's teachers but remain dubious of Washington.