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.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Education Secretary Arne Duncan (r.) accompanied by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes, speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 8.

States are likely to get relief from some of No Child Left Behind’s most onerous requirements this fall, the Obama administration announced Monday.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that given Congress’s failure to reauthorize the act – which expired more than three years ago – he will grant conditional waivers to states to free them from what many say are unrealistic requirements for student performance.

“We can’t afford to have the law of the land have so many perverse incentives, or disincentives, to the kind of progress we want to see,” said Secretary Duncan in a press briefing Monday. For states that are willing to align themselves with the Obama administration’s priorities – including higher statewide academic standards and targeted plans to address the worst-performing schools – he said that “we want to give them a lot more flexibility.”

Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), states are supposed to be moving toward a goal of proficiency in reading and math by 2014, for the total student body. As more and more schools fail to meet their targets, states and districts find themselves under increasing sanctions and ever more restricted about how they spend federal money – leaving many states clamoring for relief.

In recent months, several states have already asked for waivers, while Montana, Idaho, and South Dakota have simply announced that they plan to ignore parts of the law.

Secretary Duncan, using figures that appear significantly inflated, told Congress back in March that unless the law is fixed some 80 percent of schools might be labeled as failing by this fall.

While agreement is widespread that the law needs fixing – and even that waivers from some requirements may be in order – Duncan has generated controversy by signaling that he plans to tie such waivers to other reforms. Details won’t be announced for another month, but such reforms are likely to include higher standards, teacher evaluation systems, and better use of data, among other things – all areas the administration has consistently emphasized.

“It’s a really novel interpretation of waiver authority – not simply requesting that states demonstrate they’ll comply with the spirit of the law, or that states will find other ways to achieve NCLB’s ends, but instead offering to let states evade federal law if they promise to do something else that Obama happens to like,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, articulating a frequent criticism of the proposal.

Conservative lawmakers have already bristled at what they see as federal overstepping and too much intrusion into local education authority, and have questioned the legality of Duncan’s plan.

“I remain concerned that temporary measures instituted by the [Education] Department, such as conditional waivers, could undermine the committee's efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.,” said Rep. John Kline (R) of Minnesota, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, in a statement.

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.

“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.”

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