The Obama administration unveiled plans Monday to give school districts a break from the stringent testing mandates in the No Child Left Behind Law, as long as they pursue other reform efforts.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that President Barack Obama has authorized him to grant the waivers because Congress has failed to act on a long-overdue rewrite of the widely criticized law.
"We can't have a law of the land that has so many perverse incentives," Duncan said. "We can't afford to wait."
Critics call the law's benchmarks unrealistic and say they brand schools as failures even if they are making progress. At the White House, Duncan told reporters that schools are "begging" for
relief but that lawmakers haven't acted even though Obama sent Congress an overhaul proposal 16 months ago.
The goal of the No Child Left Behind law is to have every student proficient in math and reading by 2014. States have been required to bring more students up to the math and reading standards each year, based on tests that usually take place each spring. The step-by-step ramping up of the 9-year-old law has caused stress in states and most school districts, because more and more schools are labeled as failures as too few of their students meet testing goals.
Through the waivers, schools will get some relief from looming deadlines to meet testing goals as long as they agree to embrace other kinds of education reforms such as raising standards, helping teachers and principals improve, and focusing on fixing the lowest performing schools. Details on the waivers will be provided to districts next month.
Duncan and Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, said the administration will encourage every state to apply and will work with them to meet the requirements.
Duncan said that the plan for temporary relief from some aspects of the federal law would not undermine what Congress is still discussing in terms of revising federal education laws. The long-awaited overhaul of the law began earlier this year in the House, but a comprehensive reform appears far from the finish line.
"What we do in terms of flexibility can be a bridge or transition," Duncan said. "We all want to fix the law. This might help us get closer to that."
The chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., says he is worried about Duncan's waiver plan.
"I remain concerned that temporary measures instituted by the department, such as conditional waivers, could undermine the committee's efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act," Kline said in a statement, referring to the formal name of the No Child Left Behind law.
Montana Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau said she welcomed the waiver proposal, as long as it offers relief from the 2014 deadline. She said her state isn't afraid of high standards and education reform but needs enough time to reach those standards and the ability to institute change in a way that works for Montana.
"They can set the bar wherever they want. They just have to let us have the flexibility to get there," Juneau said.