Obama May Ease No Child Left Behind Mandates to Avoid School ‘Train Wreck’

President Barack Obama’s administration said it would offer states relief from the nation’s main public-education law if Congress fails to enact changes by the start of the school year.

States may avoid requirements of the No Child Left Behind law that, for example, more students pass standardized tests each year if they agree to administration-backed “reforms,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said June 10 in a press briefing. The Education Department has pushed states to adopt national academic standards and merit pay for teachers. The law ties U.S. funding to test results.

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin and Republican Representative John Kline are among the members of Congress who have criticized the law’s focus on holding schools accountable only through testing proficiency. Almost four years ago, Congress released a draft bill to revamp the law, and in March 2010, the Obama administration issued a blueprint for change. No legislation has been formally introduced, giving Congress less than three months to meet the administration’s deadline.

“Our children get one shot -- only one shot -- at education, and they cannot wait any longer for reform,” Duncan said. He called the law a “slow-motion train wreck for children, parents and teachers” that risks labeling three- quarters of U.S. schools as failures.

Photographer: Jay Mallin/Bloomberg

U.S. Secretary of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Close

U.S. Secretary of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

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Photographer: Jay Mallin/Bloomberg

U.S. Secretary of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Bush’s Initiative

No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002, is former President George W. Bush’s signature education initiative. Officially called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law requires schools show that all students are proficient on state standardized reading and math tests by 2014. Schools also must demonstrate yearly progress toward that goal or risk losing federal money.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, whose staff was briefed on Duncan’s plan, supports the administration’s proposal, said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman. O’Malley, a Democrat, worries that even high-performing schools could lose federal funds under the current law if they are labeled as failing, she said.

Meeting federal testing benchmarks “is not the only measure of school success that should be taken into account,” Guillory said.

Congress, not the Education Department, should be responsible for changing the law, said Harkin, the Iowa Democrat and Senate education committee chairman, and Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican and the committee’s ranking member, in separate statements.

‘Premature’ Step

“Given the bipartisan commitment in Congress to fixing No Child Left Behind, it seems premature at this point to take steps outside the legislative process that would address NCLB’s problems in a temporary and piecemeal way,” Harkin said in his statement.

The administration’s first priority is working with Congress to change and reauthorize the law, Duncan said. If lawmakers don’t act, the administration would use its power to grant waivers to states that agree to make changes, Duncan said.

Rather than a “one-off” approach, Duncan said he would favor giving states a regulatory-relief package in exchange for what he described as “a set of reforms.” The administration may ease provisions for states that show they will measure how much students learn in a given year, rather than meeting absolute proficiency standards, Duncan said.

Duncan, when asked by reporters about the types of “reforms” he was referring to, cited the administration’s $5 billion Race to the Top grants that have rewarded states that incorporate student achievement into teacher evaluations and adopted common academic standards developed by U.S. governors and schools chiefs.

Department’s Plan

In March 2010, the department’s blueprint advocated giving schools credit for showing improvement in student achievement through a variety of measures, rather than only for reaching a certain level of proficiency on state standardized tests. Duncan said then the current system encourages states to lower their standards so they can qualify for federal money.

Kline, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the House education committee, supports “enhanced flexibility” for states and school districts, Jennifer Allen, his spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

“However, Chairman Kline remains concerned about any initiative that would allow the Secretary to pick winners and losers in the nation’s education system,” Allen said.

To contact the reporters on this story: John Hechinger in Boston at jhechinger@bloomberg.net; John Lauerman in Boston at jlauerman@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at jkaufman17@bloomberg.net

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