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Education reform will trump waivers

Scraps work done on No Child Left Behind changes

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If Congress decides to do its job, the hard work of education officials in nearly three dozen states suddenly will go down the drain.

Obama administration waivers granted to 34 states and the District of Columbia, which freed them from the constraints and mandates of the No Child Left Behind law, would be nullified if lawmakers move a major new education reform package this year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told lawmakers Thursday.

"My understanding is that the waivers become obsolete" if new federal education reforms go into effect, he told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "This [waiver system] was our Plan B because of the congressional lack of action."

State leaders, including those in Maryland and Virginia, produced detailed waiver proposals with many significant reforms to their school systems. While successful applications were by no means identical, they all included the same core elements: a plan to develop stronger college and career readiness programs; greater focus on teacher and principal effectiveness and evaluation systems; and accountability systems for the lowest-performing schools.

Education Department officials issued the waivers, arguing that the many of the mandates and deadlines of No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002, had proved unworkable. Once granted the waivers, states were free from the law and its most onerous provisions, specifically the "adequate yearly progress" system that labels schools as failing each year even if they are making progress.

While publicly pushing for lawmakers to get a deal done, Mr. Duncan said that he wanted to enact the waiver program -- which has proven popular with many educators and state officials -- sooner than September 2011, when it was announced by President Obama at a White House news conference.

Out of respect for Congress, the administration waited, he said. But in the end, school reform measures in both the House and Senate fell short and the White House felt it had no choice but to bypass No Child Left Behind.

"We put in hundreds and hundreds of hours in what proved to be a fruitless effort," he said of congressional negotiations to fix the law.

Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle sounded optimistic Thursday about the prospects of passing a comprehensive education reform bill in this Congress. Previous attempts fell apart due to bitter partisanship, but lawmakers hope to learn from past mistakes and find agreement.

"We're overdue in doing our job," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican and his party's ranking member on the Senate education committee.

The need for the waiver system, he added, is a direct result of inaction on Capitol Hill.

"That's our responsibility. That's our fault. That's on us," said Mr. Alexander, who served as education secretary for President George H.W. Bush. "I hope we can take the work we did in the last Congress, focus on what we agree on, come up with a lean bill, pass it, and let the House pass whatever it passes."

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and committee chairman, echoed those sentiments.

"In this new Congress, we will redouble our efforts," said Mr. Harkin, who recently announced that he won't seek re-election in 2014. He has served in the Senate since 1985.

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