Presidential contender Barack Obama on Tuesday called for a $18 billion education plan that he said would fix mistakes his chief Democratic rivals made when they approved President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" effort.
The Illinois Democrat criticized Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards for not fully funding No Child Left Behind. While outlining his own education proposal to prepare students for college and to train teachers to lead in classrooms, Obama said the two rivals haven't done enough to protect students.
"It's pretty popular to bash No Child Left Behind out on the campaign trail, but when it was being debated in Congress four years ago, my colleague Dick Durbin offered a chance to vote so that the law couldn't be enforced unless it was fully funded," Obama said. "A lot of senators, including Senator Edwards and Senator Clinton, passed on that chance. And I believe that was a serious mistake."
An Edwards spokeswoman said the criticism was not fair.
"In his rush to criticize, Senator Obama left out the inconvenient fact that he supported No Child Left Behind as an Illinois state senator before he opposed it as a presidential candidate," Kate Bedingfield said. "It's not 'a new kind of politics' to try to have it both ways."
Likewise, Clinton spokeswoman Kathleen Strand said, "When he was in the state Senate, Senator Obama voted to implement No Child Left Behind without a requirement for full funding, so his comments today are somewhat curious." She said Clinton has voted several times to fully fund the law.
While still in the Illinois state Legislature, Obama voted for the state board of education to implement No Child Left Behind. He still supports the intent of the federal law - higher standards, highly trained teachers and the closing of achievement gaps - but faults the way it has been executed.
"Labeling a school and its students as failures one day and then throwing your hands up and walking away from them the next is wrong," Obama said.
Obama's plan would encourage universal pre-kindergarten programs - but not require them - expand teacher mentoring programs and reward teachers with increased pay not tied to standardized test scores. Failing teachers would be moved from classrooms and replaced with ones who are competent, Obama said.
Obama's plan would cost $18 billion. His campaign said he would pay for it in part by delaying NASA's Constellation Program, which is developing the vehicle and rockets to go to the moon and later to Mars. He also proposes to help pay for the education plan by reducing costs by auctioning surplus federal property and by cutting down erroneous payments identified by the Government Accountability Office.
A Republican National Committee spokesman said Obama's plan could actually hurt education.
"It is ironic that Barack Obama's plan to help our children reach for the stars is financed in part by slashing a program that helps us learn about those very same stars," Danny Diaz said.
Obama said families also have to be part of the solution.
"We can spend billion after billion on education in this country. We can develop a program for every problem imaginable and we can fund those programs with every last dime we have. But there is no program and no policy that can substitute for a parent who is involved in their child's education from day one," he said.
Obama said he would accredit college programs, remove poorly performing teachers from classrooms and increase time spent on math and science instruction. He said mentoring programs are key to keeping good teachers involved and improving struggling ones.
He said he also would establish 40,000 new scholarships for potential teachers, pay for continuing education programs and invest in new schools.