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US moves to head off states' revolt over No Child Left Behind

With some states in open revolt against education reforms in the No Child Left Behind law, the Obama administration prepares to issue waivers from certain requirements. But states must agree to a different set of reforms to qualify.

By Staff writer / August 9, 2011

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, right, with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, center, and Melody Barnes, left, director, White House Domestic Policy Council, during the news briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug., 8, 2011.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

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No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, is fast becoming a law that state education leaders wish they could leave behind. At least the part that says they have to keep raising the bar for reading and math performance – and then take action on the rapidly growing number of schools that miss the higher targets.

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State superintendents in Montana, Idaho, and South Dakota have flat-out said they aren't going to raise the bar for schools' "adequate yearly progress" (AYP). They've sent letters to United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to that effect in the past several months.

The letter of the law has outlived the spirit, they argue, and they can't afford to follow all of it while also pursuing what they see as better ways to hold schools accountable.

"We could continue raising the bar and bringing more schools on that need support that we can't support ... or we could freeze it and continue supporting the schools that we currently serve," says Montana superintendent Denise Juneau.

Dozens more states see things the same way, but rather than openly defying the law, they’ve been hoping the US Department of Education will grant waivers from various aspects of it. On Monday, the Obama administration announced that it will indeed be granting waivers this fall – provided states sign on to certain reforms.

Following the law is not optional

Groups that support NCLB's focus on closing achievement gaps for poor and minority students say that following the law isn't optional.

"It's the law.... When you say, 'We don't want to do this,' then you shouldn't take the [federal] money either," says Amy Wilkins, a vice president at the Education Trust in Washington, which pushes for the closure of achievement gaps.

One of the biggest concerns of states is that NCLB requires 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014, which many education officials say is impractical, especially since there will always be students arriving who are just learning English.

But states have backed themselves into a corner, Ms. Wilkins says. "For many years, [a lot of states] had very, very small goals, hoping that NCLB would go away before we got to the deadline."

Waiting for Congress

NCLB, which took effect in 2002, was due for revision and reauthorization by Congress in 2007 – and states are still waiting.

One key reason this year for the holdup: US Rep. John Kline (R) of Minnesota, chairman of the House committee overseeing education, doesn't see eye to eye with his Senate counterparts or Secretary Duncan on the best way to revise NCLB.

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