Education Secretary Arne Duncan says he will announce a new waiver system Monday to give schools a break from student testing mandates in the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Critics say the benchmarks are unrealistic and brand schools as failures even if they make progress. Schools and districts where too few kids pass the tests for several years are subject to sanctions that can include firing teachers or closing the school entirely.
State and local education officials have been begging the federal government for relief from the mandates, but school starts soon and Congress still hasn't answered the call.
The plan to offer waivers to all 50 states, as long as they meet other school reform requirements, comes at the request of President Barack Obama, Duncan said. More details on the waivers will come in September, he said.
The goal of the No Child Left Behind law is to have every student proficient in math and reading by 2014. States have been required to bring more students up to the math and reading standards each year, based on tests that usually take place each spring. The step-by-step ramping up of the 9-year-old law has caused stress in states and most school districts, because more and more schools are labeled as failures as too few of their students meet testing goals.
Through the waivers, schools will get some relief from looming deadlines to meet testing goals as long as they agree to embrace other kinds of education reforms such as raising standards, helping teachers and principals improve, and focusing on fixing the lowest performing schools.
Duncan and Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, said the administration will encourage every state to apply and will work with them to meet the requirements.
Nothing in this plan for temporary relief from some aspects of the federal law will undermine what Congress is still discussing in terms of revising federal education laws, Duncan said. The long-awaited overhaul of the law began earlier this year in the U.S. House, but a comprehensive reform appears far from the finish line.
"What we do in terms of flexibility can be a bridge or transition," he said. "We all want to fix the law. This might help us get closer to that."
The chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, however, says he is worried about Duncan's waiver plan.
"I remain concerned that temporary measures instituted by the department, such as conditional waivers, could undermine the committee's efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., in a statement, referring to the formal name of the No Child Left Behind law.
The Obama administration requested a revision more than a year ago. Duncan said another school year is about to start and state education officials have told him they can't keep waiting for relief from the mandates.
"I can't overemphasize how loudly the outcry is to do something now," Duncan said.
Duncan has warned that 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled failures next year if No Child Left Behind is not changed.
Education experts have questioned that estimate, but state officials report a growing number of schools facing sanctions under the law.
Montana Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau said she welcomed the waiver proposal, as long as it offers relief from the 2014 deadline. She said her state isn't afraid of high standards and education reform but needs enough time to reach those standards and freedom to institute change in a way that works for Montana.
Montana decided to skip a planned increase in its testing goals this past school year.
"I don't mind the goals and we're certainly not afraid of accountability. They can set the bar wherever they want. They just have to let us have the flexibility to get there," Juneau said. "We can definitely meet any bar they throw at us."
The chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee said he understands why it was time for the administration to take action.
"This Congress faces real challenges reaching bipartisan, bicameral agreement on anything," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in a written statement. "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."
Harkin said he remains committed to keep working toward a bipartisan solution to reform the federal education law.