- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2012

California has decided against applying for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, but local officials in the Golden State still want relief from the widely maligned, decade-old law.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Friday called on the Obama administration to expand its opt-out program to the individual district level, saying freedom from the act’s many mandates would accelerate reform.

“My hope is that we also get waivers from NCLB, so we can innovate and do things that the states are allowed to do,” said Mr. Villaraigosa, speaking at an education roundtable at D.C.’s American University.

As mayor, the second-term Democrat is responsible for the 919,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest system in the nation behind New York. He was joined at the event by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The discussion centered on reform at the ground level in America’s three largest cities - reforms instituted in spite of the federal government’s heavy-handed role in education policy since NCLB went into effect in 2002.

President Obama and Mr. Duncan since taking office three years ago have called on Congress to scrap the law, but deep partisan divides and the political realities of a presidential election year have made a grand compromise unlikely.

With congressional action stalled, the administration last year unveiled its “Plan B” - a way out from NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” benchmarks and other provisions in exchange for detailed reform plans, which must be approved by the Education Department.

Eleven states have been granted waivers, and another 26 states and the District applied last week. Some in Congress have criticized the plan and accused the administration of attempting to impose its own de facto version of education reform through waivers.

The initiative, along with others in the education realm and beyond, has been part of Mr. Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” approach of enacting major policy changes without Congress.

Mr. Duncan, who led Chicago’s public schools before joining the administration, didn’t directly address Mr. Villaraigosa’s suggestion that the waiver system be expanded to individual cities and districts. He did say, however, that the administration’s next round of the popular competitive grant program Race to the Top will be conducted at the city and district level.

Much like the waiver program, Race to the Top offered taxpayer-funded awards to states that developed reform plans, which range from better use of technology to merit-pay systems for teachers. Three rounds have been held, with two focusing on K-12 education at the state level, and another dealing with pre-kindergarten schooling.

The next round will enable an individual school system - such as those in New York City or Los Angeles - to bypass their state education leaders and work directly with the federal government on reform models.

“It’s going to be a significant change, and it’s a change long overdue and welcomed by all of us,” Mr. Emanuel said.