Obama to Bypass Congress in Easing No Child Left Behind Law

President Barack Obama’s administration will bypass Congress to override the nation’s main public-education law, granting waivers to states if they agree to his schools agenda.

States can avoid the No Child Left Behind law’s 2014 deadline for achieving 100 percent proficiency on standardized state reading and math exams if they sign off on yet-unspecified administration “reforms,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes said Aug. 5 in a press briefing.

Saying Congress has failed to take action to fix the nine-year-old law, the U.S. Education Department will offer states waivers as soon as this school year. Duncan opposes the legislation’s focus on holding schools accountable only through testing proficiency, which he has said encourages dumbed-down standards. About 80 percent of U.S. schools risk being labeled failing if the law isn’t changed.

“I can’t overemphasize how loud the outcry is for us to do something now,” Duncan said.

Duncan in June said the administration would grant the waivers if Congress failed to approve legislation changing it by the start of this school year -- a deadline the legislature isn’t likely to meet.

Washington Gridlock

The administration’s waivers “could undermine” congressional efforts to change No Child Left Behind, John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who chairs the House education committee, said in a statement. Kline said he will be monitoring Duncan’s actions “to ensure they are consistent with the law and congressional intent.”

Kline’s committee is working on a series of bills to change the law. They include promoting the growth of charter schools -- privately run public schools -- and cutting spending by eliminating half of the federal education programs under the current law.

Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat and Senate education committee chairman, said he still hopes the Senate can produce a “comprehensive bill” reauthorizing No Child Left Behind.

“That said, it is undeniable that this Congress faces real challenges reaching bipartisan, bicameral agreement on anything,” Harkin said in a statement.

Duncan’s approach differs from past education department waivers -- supported by many Republicans as a way to ease regulatory burdens -- because the agency is attaching conditions to promote administration policies, said Jack Jennings, president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan research organization.

Executive Authority

“This is a bold use of executive authority by Duncan,” Jennings, a former general counsel for the House education committee, said in a telephone interview. “Duncan is certainly determined to bring about school reform while he’s in office.”

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 to 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.

Though specifics haven’t been set for the waivers, schools would be released from that deadline and annual progress requirements if they agree to such changes as raising academic standards and evaluating teacher effectiveness based on student achievement and other measures, Duncan said. The department will make details public in September.

“We can’t afford to do nothing,” Duncan said.

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