With a growing number of states rebelling against the No Child Left Behind law and stalled efforts in Congress to reform it, the Obama administration says it will grant waivers to liberate states from a law that it considers dysfunctional.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he is taking action because of "universal clamoring" from officials in nearly every state, who say they cannot meet the unrealistic requirements of the nine-year-old federal education law.
"The states are desperately asking for us to respond," Duncan said in a conference call with reporters Friday.
Duncan and Melody Barnes, President Barack Obama's domestic policy adviser, were short on specifics but said they would release details in September, when they will begin weighing applications from any state that wants to be exempted from No Child Left Behind.
Administration officials said they will grant waivers to states that adopt standards designed to prepare high school graduates for college and careers, use a "flexible and targeted" accountability system for educators based on student growth and make "robust use of data," among other things.
Any state can apply for a waiver, and its application will be reviewed by a panel of peers. The final decision falls to Duncan, who said he expects that successful states will receive waivers in the coming school year.
"It is something we are very interested in and we are looking forward to seeing the details," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
Maryland would appear to be well positioned to get a waiver because it won one of the Race to the Top federal grants, which required the state to move toward many of the provisions that Duncan has said he would like to see in order for states to receive approval.
Reinhard said about 44 percent of elementary and middle schools in the state did not meet federal standards this year, a smaller percentage than in many states, but still a percentage that is growing every year.
The changes could be "very significant" for the state, he said.
Most states are concerned about the law's sharply escalating demands, culminating in the goal that 100 percent of students must be proficient in reading and math by 2014 or their schools will face serious sanctions, including the loss of federal aid.
In the past six months, a handful of states have asked for waivers and a few have simply declared that they will not meet their annual targets under the law.
Educators say that the pressure of trying to reach 100 percent proficiency has created an unhealthy focus on standardized tests, with continual drilling in the classroom and a narrowing of curriculum that excludes anything beyond math and reading. Some also blame the law for creating a warped atmosphere that led educators to allegedly rig test results in Baltimore, the District of Columbia and Atlanta.
The law's weaknesses have undermined education reform, Duncan said. Since the law allows states to create their own standards and measures of proficiency, some have "dummied down" standards to inflate test scores, Duncan said.
Tennessee, for example, was posting scores that showed 91 percent of its students were proficient in math. After it recently raised its standards, that figure fell to 34 percent, Duncan said. "Now that's a very tough message, but guess what? It's the truth," he said. "The current law serves as a disincentive to the truth, not an incentive."
Despite widespread agreement among Republicans and Democrats in Congress that the 2002 law is flawed, lawmakers have made little progress toward revamping it. Duncan has tried for two years to prod Congress to act, with little to show for his efforts.
"It is undeniable that this Congress faces real challenges reaching bipartisan, bicameral agreement on anything," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, in a statement. He said he still hoped Congress would write a "comprehensive" new law, but that he backed the idea of waivers in the meantime.
But Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the administration's actions may interfere with his plans to complete a reauthorization package this fall. "I remain concerned that temporary measures instituted by the department, such as conditional waivers, could undermine the committee's efforts," Kline said through a spokeswoman.
Chester E. Finn, president of the Fordham Institute, an education research group, said the administration's actions also raise legal questions.
"Even if one agrees with [Duncan] on the merits, as I do, the law doesn't say he can unilaterally impose new conditions that aren't in the law," said Finn, a Republican. "There's a separation of powers issue involved here. To what extent does the executive branch get to decide what's in the law?"
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun