- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ten states were given an exit from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind law Thursday, as the Obama administration followed through on its promise to overhaul federal education policy without Congress.

In exchange for submitting detailed reform plans that were recently approved by the Education Department, the 10 states - New Jersey, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Colorado, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana and Kentucky - have been granted waivers and will no longer be bound by NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) standard, which has fallen out of favor in the education community.

An 11th state, New Mexico, had its waiver application rejected, but the state will revise and resubmit its plan in the coming weeks.

“When it comes to fixing what’s wrong with No Child Left Behind, we’ve offered every state the same deal,” President Obama said at a White House announcement. “We’ve said if you’re willing to set higher, more honest standards than the ones that were set by No Child Left Behind, then we’re going to give you flexibility to meet those standards.”

The Education Department will accept a second round of waiver applications until the end of the month, Secretary Arne Duncan said. At least two dozen states are expected to submit them by Feb. 29.

Since rolling out the waiver system last summer, the administration has cast it not as the preferred course, but as a necessary “Plan B” because Congress has been unable to agree on a replacement for NCLB. While nearly all lawmakers and many education specialists agree the decade-old law desperately needed to be changed, not everyone is thrilled with the White House’s unilateral approach.

“Our children’s education should not be a political poker chip,” said Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican and his party’s ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which last year passed an education reform package with bipartisan support. But the measure has yet to reach the Senate floor.

“What the president has announced today are not waivers. This is another end run around Congress’ constitutional role to legislate,” Mr. Enzi said. “This action clearly politicizes education policy, which historically has been a bipartisan issue. It is time for the president to work with Congress on important issues like this.”

While each state has been given the same reward, the 10 plans differ greatly. One of Massachusetts’ goals is to cut the number of underperforming students in half within six years. Colorado will set up an education website, where parents can interact with teachers and get daily updates on their children’s academic progress. New Jersey will establish an early warning system for potential dropouts and develop strategies to keep them in school.

But it remains to be seen how much of the proposals will translate into reality, and some analysts fear that states simply said what they needed to say to gain relief from NCLB.

“The states that have been granted waivers now have to deliver on their promises by challenging their schools and, simultaneously, providing the supports they’ll need to meet the challenge,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs at the Education Trust, a D.C.-based advocacy group.

“Today is the beginning, not the end of a new chapter in American education. How it ends will have much more to do with the actions of the adults involved than with the abilities of our nation’s students, who will soar if given the opportunity,” she said.

The waiver announcement came on the same day that Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, released the final two pieces of the House Republicans’ education reform agenda.

While his committee has made some progress, Mr. Kline believes the waiver strategy has taken some of the pressure off of Congress, and has made legislative action in the near future less likely.

“I think it’s something of an impediment to progress,” he told Washington Times editors and reporters in an exclusive interview Wednesday. “There’s no question this has taken some of the steam we need to get this done.”

Mr. Kline’s Student Success Act would eliminate AYP and replace it with state-designed accountability systems that must be implemented within two years of the act becoming law. Partly because of Democrats’ objections, the bill would also restore an administrative cap to federal Title 1 money, meant to aid the most disadvantaged students. A previous Republican proposal would have allowed some Title 1 money to be used for other purposes.

He also unveiled the “Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act,” which would eliminate the “highly qualified teacher” designation under No Child Left Behind, which many argue places too much weight to a teacher’s degrees and certifications, rather than his actual performance in the classroom.

The bill calls on states to develop their own teacher evaluation systems, which must include assessments of instructors classroom leadership and their students academic achievement, within three years.

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