Education secretary tells Congress: Change No Child Left Behind – or I will

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says time is running out to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. If Congress doesn't move soon, he said he'll take matters into his own hands.

Jim Mone/AP/File
Education Secretary Arne Duncan (r.) takes questions from first graders as Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota listens during a visit to Dayton's Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary School on May 31 in Minneapolis. Duncan is pressing Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.

The Obama administration is raising the stakes for Congress to act on reforming No Child Left Behind.

If Congress won’t act to reauthorize and amend the act – officially the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – then the administration will start addressing some of the act’s flaws itself, Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned Monday.

The law, which was up for reauthorization more than three years ago, expects all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, among other things. As that deadline approaches with no sign of the benchmark being met – and as more and more schools are labeled as failing as a result – many states and districts have been clamoring for relief from the sanctions imposed by NCLB for schools that fail to meet their targets.

In March, Secretary Duncan warned that some 80 percent of schools may be labeled failing by this fall, though some education experts believe that figure is inflated. In a conference call with reporters Monday, Duncan called the current form of NCLB a “slow-motion train wreck,” and said that “we must fix No Child Left Behind now, not in Washington time but in real-people time.”

Duncan emphasized that he was still hopeful that Congress would act to reauthorize the ESEA, since there is a great deal of bipartisan agreement that the law is flawed and that certain changes are needed. But he said if that doesn’t happen, he would take advantage of language in the original bill which gives him authority to grant waivers – though he would only grant them in exchange for states signing onto certain reform measures.

“This is Plan B,” he said. “Plan A is to have Congress move. If that doesn’t happen, we can’t sit here and do nothing.”

How would the waivers work?

States and districts, most of whom are dealing with strapped budgets, have been asking for federal relief from some of the NCLB provisions for some time. They argue that the current law imposes strict sanctions and proscribes how federal funds must be spent without much evidence that those methods work.

Duncan has yet to provide details about which provisions he would waive, but he would almost certainly address the requirement that all students be proficient by 2014. He would also likely give districts more flexibility in how they deal with failing schools, as opposed to requiring that funds be spend on extra tutoring or school-choice provisions, as the law currently states.

In the conference call, Duncan highlighted the fact that many states have made the politically tough call to raise standards, even though that meant lowering the numbers of proficient students. He said he wanted to ensure that those states weren’t punished for making the right reforms. He also said he wanted to look more at growth over time than at absolute scores.

“We will not, we will never abandon accountability,” he said. “We want to offer flexibility in exchange for reform not to give a free pass to states.”

Duncan said that the reforms states would need to accept in order to get the waivers hadn’t yet been determined, but that it would be a package of reforms, rather than something from which states could pick and choose. In the past, the administration has used its leverage to push states toward common standards, better data systems, and having teacher evaluations tied to student achievement.

The right time?

Many educators and administrators welcomed the announcement, though they also said they were eager to see the details and hoped to avoid new requirements.

“We see it as a step in the right direction,” says Reginald Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association, which has been urging relief from NCLB requirements. “If Congress is unable to pass the reauthorization, then this is the next best thing – temporary relief so we won’t be spending money needlessly.”

But others are voicing concern that the waivers might go too far in appeasing administrators without taking the needs of students into account.

“The department needs to be very careful to send the message that it’s serious about accountability, serious about closing the achievement gap, and keeping states and districts on track to ensuring that all students become proficient,” says Dianne Piché, senior counsel at the Leadership Conference, a civil rights coalition. “I want to make sure that these waivers will result in something better for children.”

Ms. Piché, who used to work in the Education Department’s office for civil rights, also questioned whether the announcement would take pressure to reform the law off Congress at a time when there is a real bipartisan agreement about the changes.

Concern in Congress

That is a concern shared by Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

“The best way to fix the problems in existing law is to pass a better one,” Senator Harkin said in a statement. “Given the bipartisan commitment in Congress to fixing [NCLB], it seems premature at this point to take steps outside the legislative process that would address NCLB’s problems in a temporary and piecemeal way.”

Rep. John Kline (R) of Minnesota, the chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has also questioned the announcement, in particular raising concerns about the new reform requirements that will be required for relief.

Such reactions indicate Congress isn’t on board with the administration’s actions, and some observers say Duncan is walking a risky line by challenging Congress.

“For a secretary to threaten Congress that he will use his waiver authority unless they act is extraordinary, because Congress has so many ways of punishing the administration if the secretary generates the ire of congressional leaders,” says Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, who served in the Department of Education for eight years. “We can all agree that something has to be done with the accountability provisions of the law. Every child is not going to be proficient by 2014…. But this problem cannot be addressed without Congress being at least implicitly complicit.”

But others argue that he had little choice.

“It is a threat, and it’s also throwing in the towel on a bill this year,” says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy. “But I think something like this was necessary. The law hasn’t been amended since it was enacted.”

Yes, Mr. Jennings agrees, the administration risks angering Congress, particularly Republicans who tend to favor the tutoring and school choice provisions of the law, “but you don’t get anything done without getting somebody angry.”

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