by Christi Parsons
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) often tells voters that the problem with the “No Child Left Behind” effort to improve public schools is that George Bush “left the money behind.”
But in a policy speech on Tuesday, Obama added two of his rivals for the Democratic nomination for president to the list of culprits – immediately inspiring them to point the finger back in his direction.
In a speech unveiling his $18 billion plan to improve public schools, Obama accused Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina of making a “serious mistake” in not voting for a measure in 2003 to require full funding of the program.
"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."
But aides to the two Democrats noted that, as a member of the Illinois Senate, Obama voted to implement it at the state level without a requirement for full funding. And both camps pointed out other instances in which their candidates supported full funding of the law.
Obama left out the “inconvenient fact,” said Edwards spokesman Chris Kofinis, “that he supported No Child Left Behind as an Illinois state senator before he opposed it as a presidential candidate.”
The back-and-forth broke out shortly after Obama unveiled his plan for primary and secondary education, which would encourage but not require universal pre-school programs, allow school officials to extend the school day or school year and reward high-performing teachers with pay increases.
His staff says he help to would pay for the program with cuts and savings in several agencies – including by delaying NASA’s Constellation program, which aims to send human explorers to the moon and beyond.
Obama said the improvements would help fix some of the problems associated with No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001 with the goal of improving schools by raising accountability standards for educators.
But his criticism of Edwards and Clinton drew fire immediately. Obama was referring to a September 2003 vote on a measure offered by Sen. Durbin (D-Ill.). It was designed to protect states from the new federal mandates if the government failed to provide full funding.
Clinton voted against the measure and Edwards didn’t vote. Edwards also voted against an amendment allowing states to limit participation in the program if there wasn’t full funding.
But “Sen. Clinton has repeatedly called for fully funding the law, and has voted several times to do so,” spokesman Phil Singer said.
Aides to Edwards also pointed out several instances in the past in which he supported an increase in funding for the program. One of those instances was a 2004 vote and the others were press releases.
As for his vote, aides to Obama say he was just trying to get what little money was made available by the “No Child” program. And they objected to the comparison of Obama’s state Senate vote with the ones Edwards and Clinton cast in the U.S. Senate.
"We realize it's a textbook Washington tactic to pass the buck for your mistakes, but the truth is, states are not to blame for Washington's failure to fund NCLB,” said spokesman Bill Burton.
Meanwhile, at Republican National Committee headquarters, Obama critics scoffed at the idea of cutting that particular NASA program.
"It is ironic that Barack Obama's plan to help our children reach for the stars,” said spokesman Danny Diaz, “is financed in part by slashing a program that helps us learn about those very same stars."