by Matthew Rusling
U.S. President Barack Obama recently defended Race to the Top, a 4-billion-dollar plan that aims at reforms from kindergarten to 12th grade, calling it the single most important initiative the administration has taken to date.
Proponents call the plan a much-needed solution to a patchwork system in which some public schools are top notch while others trail far behind.
Critics, however, say the ambitious plan grants too much power to the federal government and deprives states of the ability to enact local policies more in tune with students' needs.
Obama said the states, educators and reformers, for the most part, have responded with great enthusiasm to this promise of excellence.
"But I know there's also been some controversy about Race to the Top. Part of it, I believe, reflects a general resistance to change," Obama said in a recent speech. "We get comfortable with the status quo even when the status quo isn't good. We make excuses for why things have to be the way they are. And when you try to shake things up, some people aren't happy."
Some experts said the government had no choice but to take action now as some schools are so bad.
"Schools are so bad in some places, especially inner city schools, that somebody had to do something," said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former White House and congressional advisor.
Critics said that while some schools do need to be revamped, the solution lies at the state rather than the federal level.
"The people in Washington are furthest away from the students and the classroom so they are going to be the least effective in meeting student needs," Lindsey Burke, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said.
There is no correlation between the national standards and academic achievement of a country, and the state solutions have worked, especially for minority students, Burke argued.
Florida, for example, has implemented a number of sweeping reforms such as strong state standards, alternative teacher certification and school choice for special needs students. Black students there now surpass or meet the statewide average in reading in eight states. Hispanic students in the state surpass or meet the statewide average of all students in 31 states.
Burke also said politics have had a negative impact on minority education.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has proven successful, is now being phased out due to political factors, she said.
"The teachers' unions hate it. And the teachers' unions are the biggest contributors to members of Congress. They don't like school choice in general so this program was at the top of their list to be eliminated, despite its success," Burke said.
Obama sends his children to private schools, along with 44 percent of senators.
"The administration clearly values school choice for its own children," Burke said.
Haskins, however, argued that Obama has done much for pre-school education -- "probably more than any other administration."
"Obama's education agenda is quite impressive," he said.