Duncan Says Education Law Reform Will Struggle to Pass Congress

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said getting a renewed version of the No Child Left Behind education law passed by Congress will be an “uphill” struggle, and defended his proposal to give states waivers to adopt school reforms.

“We continue to hope if Congress can come together in a bipartisan way behind anything, it has to be around education,” Duncan said on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital With Al Hunt” airing this weekend.

Schools across the country have said that they’ll be unable to reach the requirements in the almost 10-year-old No Child Left Behind law for students to meet proficiency levels in math, reading and writing by 2014. Duncan has announced plans to offer waivers that would allow states to ignore the deadline if they agree to raise academic standards and improve teacher performance.

“Everything we’ve done has been at a very high bar,” Duncan said. “And as we go out with this waiver package, we will only give waivers to states that maintain that high bar.”

Education officials in at least five states have already made preliminary applications for waivers which would allow schools that fall short of the law’s thresholds to continue receiving federal funds, according to Justin Hamilton, a department spokesman. Several more have announced plans to apply for the waivers.

Montana State Targets

The department is in discussion with Montana officials to adjust their state targets for math and reading so that schools will continue to receive federal funding, Hamilton said.

Margaret Spellings, who was education secretary under President George W. Bush, said the Obama administration is “throwing in the towel and admitting defeat” in education reform by allowing states a way around meeting the deadline. Spellings is a proponent of the law, which was passed in 2001 and signed by Bush the following year.

Criteria for getting the state waivers haven’t been announced, so any suggestion that they can be obtained easily is premature, Duncan said.

Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who is chairman of the House education committee, has introduced a set of bills to change the law, including a proposal to cut spending by eliminating half of the federal education programs under the current law.

Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and Chairman of the Senate education committee, is working to bring a bill reforming No Child Left Behind to the panel “soon,” said Justine Sessions, a spokeswoman from his office.

‘Globally Competitive’

The secretary also said protecting the Pell Grant federal education program -- that gives up to $5,550 to eligible U.S. college students -- from budget cuts is key to the U.S. keeping its educational lead over China and other countries seeking an economic edge.

“These other countries are investing. They’re innovative, they’re not scaling back,” Duncan said. “The jobs of the future are going to go to the countries that are producing the knowledge workers who can succeed in the globally competitive economy.”

President Barack Obama cut a $1.8-billion feature of the Pell Grant program that permitted some students to receive two grants in one year. The program, called year-round Pell, was designed to help students get degrees more quickly and was widely used by for-profit college students.

Congress and state attorneys general have been investigating recruiting practices and excessive student debt at for-profit colleges, and the administration has put new restrictions on federal aid for education companies, which makes up as much as 90 percent of their revenue. Duncan said he wants to see growth at for-profit colleges with high graduation rates whose students get good jobs.

“The good for-profit actors, we want them to have more students. We want them to continue to grow,” he said. “We’re not challenging the sector. We’re challenging the bad actors.”

The Association of Private Sector Colleges & Universities, a Washington-based trade group, sued the government in July to block the package of funding restrictions, called “gainful employment.”

To contact the reporter on this story: 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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