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Top issues: Education

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Education frustration: Thousands protest nationwide budget cuts, tuition hikes
  • Recession-starved states cut university funding to save money
  • White House, Congress work to change Bush's No Child Left Behind Act
  • GOP lawmaker concerned about "increased [federal] intrusion into our schools"

(CNN) -- U.S. education issues in 2010 boil down to two questions: how to fund cash-strapped state universities and how to fix so-called high school "drop-out factories."

Tuition at state-funded colleges and universities has skyrocketed as recession-starved states ask students to bear more of the cost of their education.

In one of the harshest examples, funding for the California State University system was reduced by nearly $1 billion for the academic years between 2008 and 2010.

Schools have responded by increasing fees, canceling classes, cutting student support programs and furloughing professors. California fees have increased 182 percent since 2002. Class waiting lists in the state have doubled or tripled.

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In March, anger and dissatisfaction led to call for a nationwide "Day of Action" to defend education. Students, professors and others held protests in 33 states including California, Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, Virginia and New York.

States are expected to wrestle with difficult budget decisions well into the future.

Opinion: Why we protest education cuts

During Barack Obama's State of the Union address in February, the president promised to "provide the support necessary for all young Americans to complete college."

He set a new national goal for the United States to "once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world," by 2020.

At the pre-university level, the Obama White House has begun working with Congress to change the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, which has been accused of being under-funded and inflexible. It set up a regimen of state reading and math tests for students in third through eighth grades, intended to identify failing schools.

Opinion: Work with teachers, don't fire them

These early years of schooling have long-term consequences. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a Senate education committee earlier this year that 27 percent of American high schoolers drop out and that 40 percent of the country's "young people" earn a two- or four-year college degree.

"If we're serious about preparing our nation's young people to compete in a global economy, we must, we must do better than this," Duncan told committee members.

How should we fix broken schools? Video

Duncan wants to shift the focus of No Child Left Behind from singling out underperforming schools -- including what he often calls "dropout factories" -- to fostering a "race to the top" to reward successful reforms.

The proposed revisions promise that low-performing schools that fail to improve will be asked to show "dramatic change," but states and school districts will be held accountable for those shortcomings as well.

The revisions support the expansion of public charter schools and calls for giving states and school districts additional flexibility in how they spend federal dollars "as long as they are continuing to focus on what matters most -- improving outcomes for students."

Educator reveals the key to parental involvement Video

The top Republican on the House education and labor committee, Rep. John Klein, R-Minnesota, expressed concern that tools to help students at struggling schools, such as tutoring, would move from required to optional.

Generally, the House GOP policy on federal education regulation calls on local educators and states to set "academic standards, testing systems, and curriculum ... without coercion from the federal government." Klein expressed concern for "increased intrusion into our schools" by some of the proposed changes to No Child Left Behind.

The Obama administration's $50 billion proposed education budget adds $3 billion in funding to help schools meet these revised goals, with the possibility of an additional $1 billion if the overhaul plan passes Congress.

Duncan has led the administration's stimulus bill-funded "Race to the Top" program, which rewards states for aggressively reforming their education systems. Its total fund of $4.35 billion is to be awarded in two phases to an undetermined number of states. In March, Duncan announced that Delaware will receive $100 million under the program and Tennessee will receive $500 million.

Texas textbooks

Texas became the focal point of an education debate this year when the State Board of Education approved controversial changes to social studies curricula introduced by its conservative members.

Months of ideological debate over the guidelines drew scrutiny since conservative members of the board introduced the changes in 2009 in what they considered an effort to bring "balance" to the curriculum.

Among the approved amendments, according to the Texas Education Agency: discussions of the "solvency of long-term entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare;" and an examination of why "the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America and guaranteed its free exercise by saying that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, and compare and contrast this to the phrase 'separation of church and state.' "

What is taught in Texas often is taught in other states because publishers typically tailor textbooks for Texas, one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the country.

However, digital publishing has diminished the state's influence on textbooks nationally and curriculum is always going to be decided at the local level, Education Secretary Duncan said.

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