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Duncan eyes waivers on NCLB rules

Education chief hints of sidestepping Hill if law’s mandates aren’t reformed

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 13, 2011

If Arne Duncan wants it done, he may have to do it himself.

The education secretary told reporters on Monday he's working on a "Plan B" to free states from the heavy-handed mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act if Congress can't pass an overhaul bill by the administration's August deadline.

The proposal, the details of which are still being hashed out, would give states waivers from NCLB regulations if they demonstrate significant reforms. Mr. Duncan said new legislation is still the preferred method, but, with more than 80 percent of schools projected to "fail" this year under NCLB, he said the law is "creating a slow-motion train wreck for children, parents and teachers."

"Plan A is to have Congress move ... if they don't, we will," he said.

Among education professionals, faith in lawmakers' ability to work out a compromise before the next school year is plummeting.

"My sense is that Congress is not going to move forward with their own bill, no way, no how," Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, told The Washington Times on Monday. "There's no indication the two parties are going to come together."

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said it's possible the administration will use the waiver plan as "bargaining chip," meant to spur the House and Senate to action.

But he said his group would oppose "selective or conditional relief" under which some states get waivers and others don't, depending on how favorably the Education Department views their reform efforts.

"Every student and school in America deserve relief from NCLB," he said Monday.

On Capitol Hill, the administration's do-it-ourselves approach has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle.

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, called the idea "premature."

"The best way to fix the problems in existing law is to pass a better one," he said in a statement.

Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, warned Mr. Duncan to "tread carefully with any scheme that bypasses the legislative process" and fears the plan would "result in additional regulations and confusion for schools."

Republicans in the House have begun introducing a series of reform bills, and Mr. Harkin said his committee "is making good progress" and hopes to soon unveil its own proposal.

Mr. Duncan encouraged both sides to continue working and said he's "optimistic" they'll strike a deal. If they do, he said, the Education Department will pull back from its waiver strategy.

In the meantime, school districts don't have much time. Most will open their doors for the 2011-2012 academic year in a little more than two months, meaning any waiver plan needs to be finalized soon.

"We're going to move pretty quickly here," Mr. Duncan said.

He added that the waivers will "not abandon accountability" and that school districts will not be given exemptions from NCLB without proving they're making efforts to better educate their students.

The waiver strategy, Mr. Duncan said, will be a "package deal," and states will have to meet all of the Education Department's reform requirements before getting an exemption.

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