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Mr. Harkin is optimistic the legislation can move quickly through the Senate, perhaps in a matter of weeks. He said he would like to see it signed into law before the Education Department’s waiver system kicks in early next year.

The department plans to exempt states from NCLB if they submit their own detailed reform plans, and the White House has called the proposal its “plan B” because, until Tuesday, there had been virtually no signs of bipartisan agreement on education reform.