States are about to get some guidance from President Barack Obama about how they can get around provisions in the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law -- a step the administration has undertaken to effectively gut the law since Congress had been slow to rewrite it.
In advance of Obama's speech Friday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said states would be able to seek waivers around requirements in the law if they can meet certain requirements the White House favors. He has said the emphasis will be more on growth than actual test scores, but revealed few specifics on how the plan would work.
The No Child Left Behind 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. When schools were deemed as failing after set periods of time, extra tutoring and school choice have been offered to students, under the law.
A component of the law that said all students must be proficient in math and reading -- meaning all students must by 2014 meet grade level standards in those subject areas -- has been hugely unpopular. Critics say the law created too much of an emphasis in classrooms on standardized tests with stakes so high that it may have even created an environment where school officials in some districts opted to cheat.
Duncan has warned that 82 percent of schools next year could fail to reach proficiency requirements, and thus be labeled as a "failure." Duncan has said it's "dishonest" for schools to receive the label if they are showing real improvements, and the law is creating a "slow-motion educational train wreck." He's also 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 subgroups underperforming and a low-performing school where everyone is struggling.
The law has been due for a re-write since 2007, and Obama and Duncan had asked that it be overhauled by the beginning of this school year. But a growing ideological divide in Congress in recent years has only complicated efforts to do so.
The GOP-led House education committee has forwarded three bills that would overhaul aspects of it, but has yet to fully tackle some of the more contentious issues such as teacher effectiveness and accountability. Key Democrats on education issues on Capitol Hill, 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.
But Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House education committee, has questioned if Duncan even has the authority to offer waivers to states in exchange for such changes. He's said 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. And, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the ranking Republican on the Senate committee with oversight over education, said the plan represents a shift in power from states to the federal government.
Duncan has said his plan would not undermine what Congress is doing because the waivers could serve as a bridge until Congress acts.