Relief ahead for states from No Child Left Behind law, but with strings
States can be excused from some certain requirements of No Child Left Behind, the US education reform law, the Obama administration said Monday. But it wants them to adopt different reforms.
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Since Duncan first announced the possibility of the conditional waivers in June, however, he seems to have earned the support of several key Democratic lawmakers who initially opposed the plan. Both Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa and Rep. George Miller (D) of California say they now understand the need for Duncan to grant the waivers.Skip to next paragraph
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“I think you’re seeing a shift” in lawmakers’ acceptance of the decision, says Andrew Rotherham, cofounder and partner at Bellwether Education, a national nonprofit consulting group, and author of the Eduwonk blog. But satisfying the various groups – some of whom want to see more accountability while others just want the law’s requirements to go away – will be a near-impossible feat, he adds.
“The administration has a few competing pressures on them,” says Mr. Rotherham. “It’s a whole lot to juggle, and the various constituencies on various sides make it a real high-wire act.”
In announcing the decision, Duncan emphasized the ways in which current law gives the wrong incentives. To increase proficiency, for instance, many states simply lowered standards. In Tennessee, Duncan said, these low standards allowed the state to report that 91 percent of children were proficient in math. Once the state “did the right thing” and raised standards, they went from 91 percent to 34 percent.
“That was a very tough lesson, but for the first time they’re telling the truth,” said Duncan in the briefing. “The current law provides lots of penalties for that kind of courage. We want to remove those and reward those states that are telling the truth.”
Demanding actions in exchange for the waivers fits with the pattern of how the Obama administration has approached education reform and – through programs like Race to the Top – has managed to spur many to align themselves with the administration’s objectives.
But some observers wonder if doing so now makes sense politically.
“The states are moving in this direction anyway,” says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy. “What’s holding them back is that they don’t have the money, or things [like teacher evaluation systems] are too complex. What schools need is relief from No Child Left Behind, and if he makes conditions too strict, not every school or state is going to get a waiver…. He should be concentrating on making sure they’re asking for waivers that make sense in terms of maintaining accountability.”
Mr. Jennings and others say Duncan risks alienating both educators and conservatives with the plan, and could generate significant backlash.
The administration has said it will announce the details of the waivers in September, but emphasizes that every state can apply, that accountability will remain central, and that receiving waivers won’t be competitive.
“Every state can, in fact, receive this kind of flexibility, but the standards will be high, the bar will be high,” said Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, in the press briefing. “Any state that isn’t able to … embrace reform will have to comply with No Child Left Behind as we move forward.”