Failing Schools? On Waivers, It’s Congress That’s Flunking: View

June 17 (Bloomberg) -- No Child Left Behind, the package of federal education reforms approved in 2001 is now in dire need of reform itself. On June 10, Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, said he might take things into his own hands if Congress doesn’t act.

What needs fixing? A lot -- starting most urgently with a requirement that all students achieve proficiency in math and English by 2014. If that provision isn’t changed, public schools whose students fail to meet the new standards will face federal sanctions, which range from allowing parents to transfer their children to shutting down the school. Duncan estimates that 80 percent of schools would now fail to achieve the standard.

Duncan is considering granting waivers to states that will exempt them from the proficiency standards -- provided the states adopt the Obama administration’s education priorities under its Race to the Top grant competition. These include charter-school expansion and better tracking of school and teacher performance.

Critics say that Duncan is overstepping the executive branch’s authority and threatening Congress’s legislative role. If so, it’s a threat worth making.

Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who heads the education committee, warned that “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.”

Actually, that process has produced little but legislative paralysis. In the past few years, individual legislators have made a handful of failed attempts to modify NCLB. Yet no bill has been introduced this year in either chamber.

Forced to Act

President Barack Obama insists that unless a re-authorization bill reaches his desk by the fall, the executive branch will be forced to act. He is right: With just two years remaining on the proficiency mandate, 800,000 at-risk schools can’t be left in limbo, wondering what consequences they will face for falling short of the mandates.

Granting waivers on this one issue doesn’t mean letting underperforming schools and states off the hook. Progress won’t come through blind adherence to outdated rules but by encouraging innovation that works at the state and local level. About 40 states pledged new reforms in the past year, many of which will necessitate new (and better) standardized tests.

NCLB was never perfect. But its guiding concept -- that all children can learn if given adequate schooling -- put the U.S. on the right path.

Whether the Education Department or Congress takes the lead in loosening NCLB’s strictures, the federal approach to school reform must keep advancing, with its focus on three primary goals: creating incentives for states to find their own ways to reach high national standards, improving teacher performance and administrative leadership, and insisting on more transparency so that parents and communities truly know what kind of progress their schools are making.

Rigor is needed, but when it comes to the universal proficiency requirement, so is a little flexibility.

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