WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama asked Congress on Monday to rewrite the nation's main education law before the new school year starts in September, setting an ambitious timetable for lawmakers whose primary focus now is on budget cuts and the deficit.
He also issued his most detailed outline yet for changes to the No Child Left Behind law.
Obama said the law, enacted in 2002 under George W. Bush, got some things right but that it also got some things wrong.
"The goals of NCLB were the right goals," Obama said, mentioning the law's promises of putting quality teachers in every classroom, establishing higher standards for learning, requiring accountability and highlighting achievement gaps among students.
"That's the right thing to do," he said at an Arlington middle school. "But what hasn't worked is denying teachers, schools and states what they need to meet these goals."
That's why the law needs to be rewritten, he said.
"In the 21st century, it's not enough to leave no child behind. We need to help every child get ahead," Obama said.
The president has met several times in recent weeks with a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers leading efforts to rewrite the bill. In Monday's remarks, he set the start of the new school year as a deadline for Congress to send him a bill.
"I want every child in this country to head back to school in the fall knowing that their education is America's priority," Obama said.
Both Republicans and Democrats agree that the law needs to be rewritten; they disagree on the federal government's role in education as well as on how best to turn around failing schools.
The bipartisan group, led in the Senate led by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Education and Labor Committee, is working to draft a comprehensive bill. Harkin has said he hopes to have the bill ready by Easter. House Speaker John Boehner, who chaired the House Education and Workforce Committee when Congress passed the law, has not indicated whether he'll make the issue a priority this year. A new group of freshman lawmakers also is skeptical of any federal role in education.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said last week that the percentage of schools labeled as "failing" under the law and not meeting yearly targets for student proficiency in math and reading could skyrocket dramatically this year, jumping from 37 percent to 82 percent as states raise standards to try to satisfy the law's mandates, according to Department of Education estimates.
The law requires states to aim to have all students proficient in math and science by 2014, a standard now viewed as unrealistic.
Schools that do not meet yearly targets over time are labeled as in need of improvement. Many parents consider the label an unfair stigma. Schools labeled as such are often described as failing although the law itself does not use that term. Obama suggested it did, however, by repeatedly saying schools are labeled as "failing" under the law.
In his remarks at Kenmore Middle School, Obama said he wants an updated education law to empower principals and teachers, support innovation at the state and local levels, and target resources to schools with consistent records of poor performance.
Instead of labeling more and more schools as "failing" under the law, he wants a more flexible system that focuses on preparing graduating students for college and career and he wants better assessments to understand whether kids are meeting that goal. Proficiency in math and science will continue to be emphasized, Obama said, but he added that skills such as critical thinking and creativity are also important.
Obama also said he wants to see a better effort at preparing and supporting teachers, holding them accountable for student progress and not making excuses for the occasional bad teachers.
"These are the steps we're going to have to take to fix" No Child Left Behind, he said.
Fighting with Congress over how deeply to cut domestic spending, Obama has promoted elements of his education agenda during visits this month to schools in Miami, Boston and Arlington.
On Monday, he reiterated that education spending is an area where he is unwilling to cut, arguing anew that an educated and highly skilled work force will attract jobs.
"Let me make it plain: We cannot cut education. We can't cut the things that will make America more competitive," Obama said.
Education is one of the president's better issues, according to AP-GfK polling that found nearly two-thirds of the public, or 64 percent, approve of his handling while 34 percent registered disapproval.
Most of the public also views the current education law unfavorably.
In an AP-Stanford poll last fall, 37 percent said the law has had "no real impact," 29 percent said it made schools worse while 25 percent said it had made things better.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)