White House, Education Dept. to relax 'No Child' mandates

With little movement within Congress toward reforming the Bush-era No Child Left Behind education framework, the White House and Department of Education have announced a new administrative process that will allow states to apply for relief from the most stringent requirement of the law--that schools achieve 100 percent student proficiency in math and reading by 2014.


President Obama has made periodic calls to Congress reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act over the past year-and-a-half, including reforms to the No Child Left Behind provisions. He has outlined an approach that would seek to replace uniform standardized tests as the primary metric of student success with newer assessment and accountability measures more closely tailored to individual students.

In March, Obama asked lawmakers to send him a bill before the start of the school year, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote in an op-ed in June that in the absence of congressional action, the administration would act on its own and push out a mechanism for states to seek regulatory relief from the No Child Left Behind provisions.

States will be able to bypass NCLB through application process

Now, about a month ahead of the beginning of the new school year, the administration is preparing to do just that. Next month, the Education Department plans to unveil a detailed framework through which states can seek regulatory relief from No Child Left Behind in an application process through which they will be asked to outline their blueprint for reforming student accountability evaluations and improving troubled schools.

"Be sure that, when we are doing this, we are asking that every state apply. Every state can apply--every state can, in fact, receive this kind of flexibility. But the standards will be high. The bar will be high," Melody Barnes, an assistant to the president and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told reporters at a White House briefing. "States are going to have to embrace the kind of reform that we believe is necessary to move our education system forward. But we encourage them and look forward to working with them, as we try to provide them with this kind of flexibility."

States that either don't apply or don't meet the administration's criteria will continue to be required to comply with the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

"The law, No Child Left Behind, 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 standards. It led to a narrowing of the curriculum," Duncan told reporters. "At a time when we have to get better, faster education than we ever have, we can't afford to have the law of the land be one that has so many perverse incentives or disincentives to the kind of progress we want to see."

While the administration will not release the details of the relief program until it is rolled out to the states next month, Duncan said that the operative feature will be flexibility. States that can demonstrate new accountability measures for student proficiency to replace the one-size-fits-all tests, as well as those that offer a plan to improve their lowest-performing schools, will be good candidates for regulatory relief through the administrative process.

According to Duncan, No Child Left Behind goads states into misreporting their students' proficiency levels for fear of running afoul of the law's accountability provisions.

Duncan said that he has talked with more than half the nation's governors over the past few days, and that each one has greeted the waiver program as a path to more flexibility under the law that would deliver better outcomes for students and support for teachers and principals. By statute, waivers to No Child Left Behind extended to the states can last up to four years.

The White House says that its statutory authority for the move is rooted in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, amended under the No Child Left Behind Act, which authorizes the Education secretary to waive certain requirements of the law.

Just the same, some critics of the administration have argued that the move would amount to a sweeping executive overreach, with the White House and Education Department co-opting what is properly the responsibility of Congress.

The administration is still urging lawmakers to work together to rewrite the law in a bipartisan fashion, but without a bill addressing the accountability provisions having yet emerged in final form, it said that it felt compelled to move on its own.

"[W]hat we have right now is Congress unable to move forward with a bipartisan bill, but we also have children and teachers and administrators and school boards out in the states clamoring for some kind of flexibility as they're trying to move to a higher accountability system, as they're trying to put in place college and career-ready standards," Barnes said. "Forty-five state school chiefs have said to us, 'We need some kind of flexibility so that we can move to these standards and we can put accountability systems in place to do so.' We have to provide them with that kind of relief."

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