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Political Notebook

Obama proposal to fix education law brings a new round of debate

September 24, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Nearly everyone agrees the fix needs fixing. The No Child Left Behind law that was supposed to improve American education has left schools grumbling at being labeled failures, state officials fuming, and complaints everywhere about required testing.

But President Obama’s response yesterday - he is allowing states to opt out - is starting a new round of heated arguments.

There are questions about whether letting states bypass unpopular proficiency standards will help the nation’s schoolchildren. And, even as states clamor to use the new waiver option, some lawmakers say Obama is inserting politics in what had been a bipartisan approach to education.

At the White House, the president said he was acting only because Congress would not. He decried the state of education and called the law - a signature legacy of President George W. Bush’s presidency - an admirable but flawed effort that ended up hurting students instead of helping them.

Obama’s announcement could fundamentally affect the education of tens of millions of children. It will allow states to scrap a key requirement that all children show they are proficient in reading and math by 2014 - if those states meet conditions such as imposing their own standards to prepare students for college and careers and setting evaluation standards for teachers and principals.

Students will still have to take yearly tests in math and reading, although the administration says the emphasis will be more on measuring growth over time.

The impact on schoolchildren could vary greatly depending on how states choose to reward or punish individual schools. Under No Child Left Behind, children who attend schools deemed failures after a set period of time are eligible for extra tutoring and school choice. Under the president’s plan, it’s up to states granted waivers to decide if they will use those same remedies.

Most states are expected to apply for waivers, which would be given to those that qualify early next year.

State officials have long complained that if they had more flexibility, they could implement positive changes. Now, they will have to step up and prove it.

“This is really going to change things because it really does put responsibility squarely on the states,’’ said Amy Wilkins, a vice president at Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that seeks to raise achievement standards in schools.

Officials from Kentucky, Idaho, Wisconsin, and Colorado were among those expressing support for the president’s plan. Massachusetts officials have said they are considering asking for a waiver.

“I look forward to the federal government narrowing its role in education and allowing Tennessee the flexibility to abide by its own rigorous standards,’’ Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, said at the White House event.

But Representative John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, wrote in an opinion piece yesterday in the Washington Examiner that the plan “could mean less transparency, new federal regulations, and greater uncertainty for students, teachers, and state and local officials.’’

In delivering his remarks, the president took a shot at Congress, saying his executive action was needed only because lawmakers have not stepped in to improve the law.

“Congress hasn’t been able to do it. So I will,’’ Obama said. “Our kids only get one shot at a decent education.’’

The law, initially spearheaded by Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, was approved with strong bipartisan support nearly a decade ago. But its popularity sank as disputes over money divided Congress, schools complained they were being labeled failures, and questions arose over the testing and teacher-quality provisions.

— Associated Press

Harvard professor OK’d for defense position WASHINGTON – With little fanfare, the Senate confirmed former Harvard professor Ashton B. Carter yesterday as right-hand man to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.

The unanimous vote, which was taken at the end of a day dominated by an impasse over funding the federal government, approved Carter’s promotion to deputy secretary from his position as undersecretary for acquisitions, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer.

After the vote, Panetta praised Carter, saying he has “a steady hand, a keen intellect, and an effective management style that will help this department keep faith with our troops and protect our nation.’’

In his new role, Carter will be central to identifying and carrying out billions of dollars in defense cuts mandated by Congress in a budget deal worked out this summer to reduce the projected federal deficit.

At his confirmation hearing, he warned of the dangers of the across-the-board automatic cuts that will kick in should a congressional committee not come up with an additional $1.5 trillion in cuts necessitated under the deal.

— Theo Emery

Solyndra officials decline to testify at hearing WASHINGTON - Top executives from a bankrupt California solar energy company declined to testify before a congressional hearing investigating their half-billion-dollar government loan.

Solyndra Inc. chief executive Brian Harrison and the company’s chief financial officer, Bill Stover, both invoked their Fifth Amendment right to decline to testify to avoid self-incrimination.

Lawmakers from both parties said that they were disappointed but that silence from the two executives would not stop them from pursuing their investigation into a $528 million loan that Solyndra Inc. received from the Energy Department in 2009.

Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, faulted the Obama administration for its role in the loan, saying at a minimum the Energy Department did not complete due diligence on the company, which lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the years before the loan was approved.

Solyndra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month and laid off its 1,100 employees.

— Associated Press