- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2011

Giving up on Congress‘ ability to pass an education reform bill, President Obama on Friday morning announced that the Education Department will begin granting waivers to states to free them from the mandates of the decade-old No Child Left Behind law.

“Given that Congress cannot act, I am acting,” Mr. Obama said during an address in the East Room of the White House. “We can’t afford to let another generation of young people fall behind.”

The law was the signature education reform of former President George W. Bush, but critics say the law’s mandates are inflexible and state education officials said they were not going to meet many of the plan’s deadlines for student improvement. But Republicans on Capitol Hill immediately blasted the president’s move, saying it bypassed Congress in a unilateral attempt to re-write federal education policy.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan first revealed the administration’s waiver plan over the summer, but the proposal was short on details until Friday. In order to escape from under NCLB and its “failing” school designation for districts that don’t meet thresholds in math and reading, states must: already have in place college- and career-ready standards; develop systems of “differentiated recognition,” which highlight the highest-performing schools and those that best serve low-income students as “reward schools;” implement a turnaround program for the lowest-performing districts; and set up a detailed system to measure the effectiveness of teachers and principals.

Clearly frustrated with lawmakers’ inability to reach compromise on an issue that once had bipartisan support, Mr. Obama bemoaned the fact that 25 percent of U.S. students don’t graduate from high school and that the nation has slipped to 16th worldwide in the number of students who go on to earn college degrees.

“Countries who out-educate us today will outperform us tomorrow,” he said.

But even before the president spoke, Republicans in Congress released statements blasting the plan to bypass Capitol Hill.

“President Obama’s efforts represent a fundamental and dramatic shift in authority from Congress to the administration,” said Sen. Michael Enzi, Wyoming Republican and his party’s ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. “This action today clearly politicizes education policy, which traditionally has been a bipartisan issue that attracts support from both parties.”

Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has also criticized the waiver plan, and said it raises legal questions since the administration is essentially nullifying a law passed by Congress 10 years ago.

Mr. Kline has begun pushing his own education reform package in the House, a five-part plan to eliminate federal red tape, recruit more effective teachers and scrap duplicative federal programs. The majority of his plan has met stiff resistance from Democrats, with the exception of a bill that encourages and provides start-up money for charter schools. That bill passed the House with bipartisan support earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and HELP Committee chairman, has yet to produce his education reform plan, despite promising he would do so sometime this year. Several of his Republican counterparts introduced their own blueprint earlier this month, which focuses on eliminating the “adequate yearly progress” system under NCLB which calls for 100 percent of students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

The measures also authorize the creation of a “Teacher Incentive Fund” to reward the best classroom leaders, combines federal education programs and, much like the bill passed in the House, calls for the expansion of charter schools.

While top Republicans in both the House and Senate are irked that they’ve been bypassed, many governors of both parties support the waiver plan. Many states have indicated they will apply for waivers, and education specialists believe those states are willing to do just about anything to gain freedom from NCLB.

Tennessee, for example, sent its waiver request even before the details of the proposal were made public. Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, joined Mr. Obama in the East Room on Friday, lending Mr. Obama’s approach some bipartisan backing.

“When there are things we can work together on, we should,” he said. “Education decisions are best made at the state and local level.”

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