- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2011

Education Secretary Arne Duncan had harsh words for Congress on Monday, calling it “dysfunctional” as he announced plans to bypass lawmakers and implement sweeping education reform through a waiver system for states.

Despite repeated calls from President Obama to overhaul the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act before the next school year, Congress has been unable to do so, even with widespread agreement between Republicans and Democrats that current policy must be changed.

Congress‘ inaction is especially apparent in the Senate, where Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the committee that oversees education policy, continues to push back his own timetable for introducing a reform bill.

Running low on patience, the administration is taking matters into its own hands.

“We can’t sit here in Washington and turn a deaf ear to what’s going on around the country,” Mr. Duncan said at a White House press conference. “Right now, Congress is pretty dysfunctional. They’re not getting stuff done.”

The lack of progress has clearly frustrated Mr. Duncan and education specialists, who criticize NCLB for its high-stakes testing and what they call its unrealistic expectations. The waiver system - the details of which will be announced sometime next month - will free states from many NCLB mandates, including the “failing” school designation, if those states demonstrate real reform and a high bar for student achievement.

NCLB calls for 100 percent of students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014, a goal nearly everyone agrees is impossible to reach. Mr. Duncan said he hopes all 50 states will apply for waivers and, if they meet certain criteria, avoid the stigma of being labeled “failing.”

The administration’s do-it-ourselves approach isn’t meant to let Congress off the hook, Mr. Duncan said. Behind-the-scenes work continues in both the House and Senate, but both sides admit they’re having trouble finding compromise in a time of political gridlock and brinkmanship.

“It is undeniable that this Congress faces real challenges reaching bipartisan, bicameral agreement on anything,” Mr. Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Mr. Harkin said he would introduce a reform bill by spring. Two weeks ago, he promised the bill would be unveiled sometime “this year.”

“I understand Secretary Duncan’s decision to proceed with a waiver package to provide some interim relief while Congress finishes its work,” he said.

Meanwhile, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce continues pushing its own five-step reform process. The committee has passed three bills and plans to introduce the final two sometime this fall.

Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and committee chairman, said in a statement he’s “concerned” Mr. Duncan’s “temporary measures … could undermine the committee’s efforts” in the coming months.

But waivers aren’t Mr. Kline’s only concern; his bills are likely dead on arrival if they reach the Senate. The latest, which frees states and school districts from many mandates on how they spend federal money, is “ill-advised and partisan,” according to Mr. Harkin.

Worried the bill could siphon money away from low-income and disabled students, Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and his party’s ranking member on the House committee, threatened “trench warfare” if Republicans passed it.

The bill cleared the committee on a party-line vote over fierce objections from Democrats, who said it could lead to civil rights violations of the most vulnerable students.

That type of bitter back-and-forth is the backdrop for education reform, but it was largely absent in 2001 when President George W. Bush joined with liberal titans including the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to pass NCLB. Back then, education was center stage in the national conversation, and leaders were looking for compromise. Today, however, it’s largely on the back burner, said Jeanne Allen, founder and president of the Center for Education Reform, a D.C.-based advocacy group.

“The issue of the day has been the economy,” she told The Washington Times on Monday. “The reason Congress was able to do this 11 years ago is because [education] was the central issue we were focused on … if you don’t have the attention of leaders, how can you go about a wholesale revision?”