WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is offering states a way around provisions of the once-heralded No Child Left Behind law, contending many elements of the Bush-era education initiative have become barriers to learning and that too many schools, even those showing modest progress, risk being labeled as failing.
States will be allowed to ask the Education Department to be exempted from some of the law's requirements if they meet certain conditions. They include enacting standards to prepare students for college and careers and making teachers and principals more accountable.
President Barack Obama planned to discuss the changes Friday at the White House.
"To help states, districts and schools that are ready to move forward with education reform, our administration will provide flexibility from the law in exchange for a real commitment to undertake change," Obama said in a statement Thursday. "The purpose is not to give states and districts a reprieve from accountability, but rather to unleash energy to improve our schools at the local level."
The administration says it is acting because Congress has been slow to address the issues by rewriting the law.
But Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House Education Committee, has questioned whether the Education Department has the authority to offer the waivers. He's said that the president has allowed "an arbitrary timeline" to dictate when Congress should get the law rewritten and that the committee needs more time to develop its proposals, which it is doing.
Kline on Thursday called the administration's plan a political move and said he cannot support a process that sets a dangerous precedent by granting the education secretary "sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers."
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Thursday that the emphasis will be more on growth than on test scores.
"We can't have a law on the books that's slowing down progress, that's slowing down innovation," he said in Joplin, Mo., where the schools were left in ruins after a tornado last May.
The No Child Left Behind law passed in 2001 with widespread bipartisan support and much fanfare. It sought to hold schools more accountable for student performance and get better qualified teachers in classrooms. It also offers school choice and extra tutoring to students attending schools deemed failing.
Critics say the law created too much of an emphasis in classrooms on standardized tests, driving the stakes so high that it may have even fostered an environment where school officials in some districts opted to cheat. In particular, the requirement that all students be on grade level in math and reading by 2014 has been hugely unpopular.
Duncan has warned that 82 percent of schools next year could fail to reach proficiency requirements and thus be labeled "failures," although some experts questioned the figure.
He has said that it's "dishonest" for schools to be labeled as failing if they are showing real improvements and that the law is creating a "slow-motion educational train wreck."
Duncan also has said that many states under the law have lowered standards instead of making them more rigorous and that the law fails to differentiate between a high-performing school with one or two underperforming subgroups and a low-performing school where everyone is struggling.
The law has been due for a rewrite since 2007. Obama and Duncan had asked Congress to overhaul it by the start of this school year but a growing ideological divide in Congress in recent years has complicated efforts to do so.
The GOP-led House Education Committee has forwarded three bills that would overhaul aspects of the law but has yet to fully tackle some of the more contentious issues such as teacher effectiveness and accountability. Key Democrats on education issues, such as Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., have said they understand why the administration is moving forward with its plan.
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Harkin said Thursday that he prefers a new education law covering all 50 states, not just those that choose to pursue a federal waiver. But he added that the administration's "patchwork approach" was the best temporary solution under the circumstances.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former U.S. education secretary, said waivers should be limited.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the top Republican on the Senate committee with oversight over education, said the administration's plan represents an unacceptable shift in power from states to the federal government.
Duncan has said the plan would not undermine efforts in Congress because the waivers could serve as a bridge until Congress acts.