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Key parts of schools law to end

Obama team sees flaws in Bush-era plan, alters rules

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post / September 22, 2011

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WASHINGTON - President Obama is poised to broaden federal influence in schools by scrapping key elements of No Child Left Behind, the George W. Bush administration’s signature education law, and substituting his own brand of school reform.

While unpopular with Republicans in Congress and some in the educational establishment, the move is drawing applause from governors struggling to meet the demands of the nine-year-old law.

Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are scheduled tomorrow to detail plans to waive some of the law’s toughest requirements, including the goal that every student be proficient in math and reading by 2014, or their schools could face escalating sanctions.

In exchange for relief, the administration will require a quid pro quo: States must adopt changes that could include expanding charter schools, linking teacher evaluations to student performance, and upgrading academic standards. As many as 45 states are expected to seek waivers.

For many students, the most tangible impact could be what won’t happen. They won’t see half their teachers fired, their principal removed, or school shut down because some students failed to test at grade level - all potential consequences under the current law.

“It’s a momentous development,’’ said Jack Jennings, president of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy. The White House is essentially rewriting the law, he said, leaving Congress on the sidelines.

Duncan said the administration has no other choice, driven by mounting pressures on schools caused by the law and no clear sign that Congress will fix its flaws. Lawmakers have been trying for four years.

“I feel compelled to do this,’’ Duncan said as he rode a bus two weeks ago to tour schools in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. “My absolute preference is for Congress to fix it for the entire country. But there’s a level of dysfunction in Congress that’s paralyzing. And we’re getting to the point that this law is holding back innovation, holding back progress.’’

Duncan already has propelled school systems across the country to make sweeping changes by awarding a record $8 billion, provided by the economic stimulus package, to states and districts that embraced Obama’s agenda. Even states that did not win money through the best-known of those programs, called Race to the Top, changed policies and laws to compete for the funds.

Duncan “walked into office and was handed a big pot of money and very few congressional restrictions,’’ Jennings said. “Congress went off and got into health reform, the budget, all these other issues that sucked up their attention. He was left alone with his money, and took advantage of the opportunity. Now he’s got another opportunity.’’

Some say the administration is reaching too far.

“This is all top-down stuff,’’ said Representative John Kline, Republican of Minnesota. His state is likely to seek a waiver.

Duncan, he said, is “using the simple power to grant waivers and expanding it to say, ‘I will grant you waivers in exchange for changing public school policies to something that I would like.’ And there’s a growing sense that he really doesn’t have the authority to do this.’’

No Child Left Behind allows the education secretary to waive “any statutory or regulatory requirement’’ of the law. It says nothing about the authority to set conditions for those waivers.

“He’s acting as the superintendent for the country,’’ said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which wants Duncan to issue waivers to every state without strings attached.

While the administration won’t spell out the conditions for waivers until Friday, Duncan has said he wants states to adopt academic standards that will prepare high school graduates for jobs and college, measure teacher performance in part by how much students grow during the year, and make use of data to track student learning, among other things.

Historically, the federal government has left such decisions to states and municipalities.

When Congress passed No Child Left Behind in 2001, it marked a bipartisan effort to hold schools accountable. For the first time, the law required schools to test all children in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school and report results by subgroups - including race, English learners, and students with disabilities.

The law required states to set goals and make steady progress toward them, including the expectation that all students tested show proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

No Child Left Behind places a premium on test results. If a student enters fourth grade reading at a first grade level and improves to read at a third grade level, her score counts as a failure because she is not reading at a fourth grade level.

“Instead of getting rewarded for helping that child leap two grade levels, the school gets punished,’’ Duncan said.