Thursday, August 11, 2011

'No Child Left Behind' waivers are a product of congressional gridlock

By Jamey Dunn
 President Barack Obama called for a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act before the beginning of the school year, but gridlock in Congress has led his administration to pursue a stopgap measure to keep thousands of schools from failing under the law's standards.

The act, passed under former President George W. Bush, requires that all students reach math and reading proficiency goals by 2014. As the requirements ramp up, schools nationwide that are making improvements are still failing under the act. Once a school fails to meet the goals for three years in a row, it can face drastic corrective measures, such as mass firings or even closing.

The Obama administration has been pushing for a change for more than a year, warning that up to 80 percent of schools will be labeled as failures in the near future. Obama rolled out his plan for a rewrite in March 2010. “The stakes are high. As it currently exists, NCLB is creating a slow-motion educational train wreck for children, parents and teachers. Under the law, an overwhelming number of schools in the country may soon be labeled as 'failing,' eventually triggering impractical and ineffective sanctions,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in an opinion peace he penned in July urging Congress to rewrite the law.

In a Congress that is falling into venomous partisan struggles over authorizing more federal borrowing and approving funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, two things that have been generally routine actions, changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, which is the current version of the complicated and controversial Elementary and Secondary Education Act, have little chance of being approved quickly. “The law, NCLB, as it currently stands is four years overdue for being rewritten. It is far too punitive; it is far too prescriptive. It led to a dumbing down of the standards, led to a narrowing of the curriculum,” Duncan said at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

Instead of a rewrite, the administration is going around Congress for the time being and plans to offer states waivers so they do not have to meet the ever-increasing goals of the act. But the feds say they will not just give states a free pass. “Where there’s a high bar, where folks are really doing the right thing for children, we want to give them a lot more flexibility,” Duncan said.

The Department of Education plans to announce the requirements for waivers in September. From a prepared statement by the department: “The administration's proposal for fixing NCLB calls for college- and career-ready standards, more great teachers and principals, robust use of data and a more flexible and targeted accountability system based on measuring annual student growth.” The statement said the requirements will reflect “similar goals.”

“The standards will be high. The bar will be high. States are going to have to embrace the kind of reform that we believe is necessary to move our education system forward,” Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, said at a Washington, D.C,. news conference. “Any state that isn’t able to comply with those kinds or reforms, that isn’t able to embrace reform, will have to comply with No Child Left Behind as we move forward.”

In essence, waivers could leave state officials choosing between making the reforms the department requires, or watching hundreds of schools fail and possibly become subject to some drastic consequences. Given all of Illinois’ recent education reforms — some of which were touted by Duncan, and others that were done as an attempt to win grants from the Federal Race to the Top Program — it would be reasonable to assume the state could be in good standing with much of what the department will seek for waivers. But only time will tell. Mary Fergus, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the board does not want to commit to seeking a waiver until the full plan is unveiled in June. Fergus said the board plans to “seek some feedback from the field” on what teachers and administrators would like to see as part of a plan to give schools more flexibility under the act.

Members of Congress working on a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act say Duncan is jumping the gun and may be overstepping his authority. U.S. Rep. John Cline, a Republican from Minnesota and chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, and U. S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, an Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee, sent a letter to Duncan voicing concerns over the waivers.

“The committee is optimistic a bipartisan consensus is possible on commonsense reforms that reduce the federal footprint in education and allow states and school districts the flexibility to meet the needs of their unique communities. However, as we continue working to attain this goal, we must ensure temporary measures do not undermine our efforts,” the letter said. They also questioned whether Duncan can impose requirements on states. “While flexibility in our education system is urgently needed, the department’s proposal is cause for concern. Issuing new demands in exchange for relief could result in greater regulation and confusion for schools and less transparency for parents. Additionally, the proposal raises questions about the department’s legal authority to grant conditional waivers in exchange for reforms not Authorized by Congress.”

But members of the administration say Congress has dragged its feet too long. “We would have loved to see Congress act. No question that it should have happened. We hope it happens some point down the road. But it hasn’t, and we can’t afford to wait,” Barnes said.

Illinois Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican, said the waivers could result in a national “patchwork” of education policy because some states likely will not get them. “I think that if you’re going to try and fix this, and you’re going to have a consistent policy, we need to go ahead and go in there and change the federal act.” He said that they are areas of agreement about a revamp of the act, but political infighting is holding up the process. “Let’s agree on what we can agree on. … Right now at the federal level, gridlock is the dynamic.”

Eddy, who also is a school superintendent in Hutsonville, said missing out on a waiver is not as much of a concern for Illinois because he predicts that the requirements will “mirror” Senate Bill 7, a landmark education reform bill passed during the spring legislative session. He agrees that Illinois schools need some kind of relief from the rigid requirements of No Child Left Behind. “I think those first few years while the goals were attainable schools did improve,” Eddy said. He said now, as schools that are still improving begin to fail under the tightening requirements, a feeling of apathy has set in. “It’s not going to get any easier because the ramp just gets steeper. … Many are saying, ‘Well, who cares if we make it or not because it has become impossible.’”

For more on the No Child Left Behind rewrite, see Illinois Issues, June 2011

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