Editorial: Moving toward 'No Child' reform

  • Updated: August 13, 2011 - 6:55 PM

Waiver plan will help bring needed relief to schools.


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Many reasons exist to reform or repeal the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal education law.

Only snapshots captured in test scores, not student progress, are recognized. Outstanding schools are labeled failures when a tiny number of students fail. Schools are expected to reach unrealistic 100-percent math and reading proficiency goals by 2015.

Those and other flaws fuel the public outcry for change.

Yet Congress has been dragging its feet. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the original name of federal education rules) was due for reauthorization four years ago, and key players on the education committees of both houses have been discussing it for at least that long.

That's why Education Secretary Arne Duncan's recent decision to offer waivers -- and not wait for Congress -- is welcome. And it's why Minnesota and other states are right to seek those waivers.

The Education Department's action will bring relief from many of the law's most unreasonable mandates -- including the "failing school'' label that can lead to firing or shifting staff and closing schools.

Waivers will be granted in exchange for education reforms, which will likely reflect criteria advanced in the 2010 Race to the Top competition for $4 billion in federal education funds.

Among those priority reforms were high common academic standards, teacher evaluations tied to student achievement, expansion of effective charter schools and alternative teacher licensure.

Most of those ideas were supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, and many are underway already in states around the nation.

Though there is nearly universal agreement that the federal law must change, some question the waivers. Minnesota's Rep. John Kline, who chairs the House Education Committee, worries that issuing new demands in exchange for relief could add more confusion to NCLB rules.

He's also concerned about the department's legal authority to grant waivers in exchange for reforms and fears that the temporary measures could undermine his committee's ongoing efforts to rewrite the law.

But it is not unusual for the federal education department to grant waivers. In most cases, the agency is within its authority to do so -- especially since states voluntarily apply and agree to the conditions.

As Duncan reasonably points out, waivers are intended to be transitional. He describes them as a "bridge'' to provide states with relief while Congress is working on the new law.

After four years without action, something needs to give sooner rather that later. Next year an estimated 82 percent of all U.S. public schools could be called failures if the federal law is not changed.

During the past six months, a handful of states have declared that they simply will opt out of the law.

Lawmakers shouldn't let politics get in the way of changing the education rules. We can't help wondering if the delays have more to do with using inaction as a 2012 campaign hammer than doing what's best for students and education.

Voters needn't look too far to see how tough it is for this Congress to reach bipartisan agreement on just about anything. Witness the down-to-the-wire debate on the debt ceiling -- and legitimate questions about whether the resulting 12-member budget supercommittee has a prayer of getting anything done.

Given congressional dawdling, Duncan is right to move ahead with much needed NCLB adjustments.

As Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius said, "It's about time.''


    "What we do in terms of flexibility can be a bridge or transition. We all want to fix the law. ... [Waivers] might help us get closer to that. ... I can't overemphasize how loud the outcry is to do something now."

    ARNE DUNCAN, U.S. education secretary

    • • •

    "I share the sense of urgency felt by state and local education officials. Unfortunately, more questions than answers surround the secretary's waivers proposal. ...The secretary has a responsibility to explain the steps states and schools will be required to take in exchange for the promised relief.''

    Rep. JOHN KLINE, R-Minnesota, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

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