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White House issues executive order to grant states waivers out of portions of No Child Left Behind

With federal lawmakers on recess and unlikely to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB) — the current reiteration of the decades-old Early and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) — the White House has announced it will grant states waivers next year to avoid the punitive sting of schools not meeting performance measures identified by the 2002 law.

In June, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters over 80 percent of schools nationally will be deemed “failing” according to the accountability metrics established by NCLB, signed by then-president George W. Bush and backed by a bipartisan Congress. So far, state Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) reports have not shown that high a percentage of schools falling behind, but a handful of states are posting numbers that show more than half of the schools are not up to snuff.

Previously, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voiced concern that the White House moving by executive order, rather than allowing Congress to hash out a reauthorization of the law, preempts the job of the legislative branch. Some Democrats, however, have softened their stance. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in a press release:

“We continue to have productive bipartisan conversations in the Senate and I remain hopeful that we can move a reauthorization bill through the HELP Committee soon. That said, it is undeniable that this Congress faces real challenges reaching bipartisan, bicameral agreement on anything. Given the ill-advised and partisan bills that the House majority has chosen to move, I understand Secretary Duncan’s decision to proceed with a waiver package to provide some interim relief while Congress finishes its work. In spite of the difficult environment here in Congress, I remain committed to working in a bipartisan fashion to pass a comprehensive bill that will provide all our students and schools with a better education system, rather than just those in a select few states.”

Justine Sessions, a spokesperson for Harkin, told The American Independent the upper body of Congress met ten times last year to reauthorize NCLB and has been in conversations for months to institute new tweaks to the law. A reauthorization of ESEA was supposed to happen in 2007.

In a June interview NPR did with Duncan, the president’s education point-man tried to downplay the significance of his office moving ahead with waivers:

CONAN (Neil Conan of NPR’s Talk of the Nation): You have to work with both houses in Congress as well. There’s a Republican charge on the House side. Of course, the Democrat Tom Harkin charge on the Senate side. Neither have been particularly thrilled with the idea of these waivers.

DUNCAN: That’s OK. We’ll continue to work together. And, Neal, I think – you understood, I’m the least political guy you’re ever going to meet. I have no interest in politics. I simply want to give children a chance to get a great education, and I’ll work with everybody: Republicans, Democrats, doesn’t matter, House, Senate. I have great relationships with Chairman Klein (sic) in the House, great relationships with Chairman Harkin in the Senate.

Education Week reports some of the relief may take a while to go into effect:

This means states could, also this school year, reset the bar for what makes for acceptable growth on test scores. Schools and districts may not feel the effects of the regulatory relief, however, until the 2012-13 school year, when things like tutoring and school choice might be waived.

NCLB uses the Annual Yearly Progress measure to determine the success of a school. Under NCLB, by 2014, nearly every school in the country is expected to have 100 percent of its students proficient according to state-administered tests used to fulfill NCLB regulations.

The law has quickly become unpopular, particularly among teachers and sympathetic groups. At the heart of the grievances voiced by groups like Save Our Schools is the diluting of traditional forms of education in favor of a one-size-fits-all legislative makeover they contend has not improved student proficiency in core subjects, nor have they led to increased graduation rates.

Recently, that rebuke gained new credibility with a May report from the National Academies of Science that concluded [PDF] “[i]ncentives will often lead people to find ways to increase measured performance that do not also improve the desired outcomes. As a result, different performance measures—that are not being used in the incentive system—should be used when evaluating how the incentives are working.”

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