- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Some congressional leaders on Tuesday said they fear the Obama administration’s “Plan B” education-reform proposal could be seen not as a call to action on Capitol Hill, but instead as an excuse for lawmakers to take the summer off.

“I just hope that people don’t see it as an escape route. You have to think long and hard about the design of those waivers,” Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and his party’s ranking member on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said Tuesday when asked about Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s plan to offer No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers to states if lawmakers can’t get a deal done in the next two months.

“We are left with an awful lot to do in a relatively short period of time. … Time is slipping away,” he added.

The Education Department announced the plan over the weekend. Details haven’t been worked out, but the concept is to give states freedom from NCLB mandates if they can show that they’re making significant reforms and are committed to boosting student achievement. The Obama administration has called on the House and Senate to compromise and pass an education overhaul bill by the start of the next school year, now a little more than two months away.

If they don’t, Plan B will go into effect.

Leaders in both chambers say they are making progress, and Mr. Duncan stressed that the waiver strategy should not interfere with negotiations.

“I don’t think we take the pressure off of Congress whatsoever” by announcing Plan B, Mr. Duncan said. “We can back off at any point. This may be a bridge to [getting a bill] passed.”

Mr. Duncan and Mr. Miller made their remarks at a Center for American Progress forum in Washington. They were joined by former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who warned the administration to be cautious about giving states too much leeway and freedom from NCLB rules.

“States are gamers” of the system, she said. “I’m skeptical that less accountability equals better results. Why? Because we tried it for 40 years. It didn’t work.”

Mr. Duncan shot back that the administration will in no way sacrifice accountability just for the sake of saying it accomplished some type of reform. He stressed there’s “a middle ground” between complete chaos in schools across the country and the stranglehold the NCLB law puts on districts.

“We have to have a high bar … but give [states] more room to get there,” he said.

Some Republicans have suggested giving states their education money in the form of block grants, freeing them from requirements of how those dollars be spent.

But Mr. Miller and other Democrats fear that strategy, too. He said the Education Department and congressional leaders can’t turn back the clock on the progress made over the past decade.

“Pretty soon, we’ll be back to where we were before, which is wondering what the hell is going on in our schools,” Mr. Miller said.

The While House and Senate leaders are optimistic they can get something done in the next 60 days, Ms. Spellings said the “learning curve” new members have to overcome is problematic. She said many new members on the Education and the Workforce Committee, who took office in January, simply haven’t had enough time to learn the “wonkery” associated with federal education policy.