White House Bypasses Congress On No Child Left Behind

Carrie Devorah / WENN.com/Newscom

With 80% of the country’s schools poised to be stripped of federal aid next year under the Bush-era law, the White House has announced it will bypass Congress and offer exemption waivers to states seeking relief from No Child Left Behind.

The override comes months after Obama called on Congress to replace the nine-year-old law by the start of the 2011 school year. Now a month away from that deadline, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he will take action to stop the “slow-motion train wreck” of unfulfillable and escalating requirements, which resulted in 38,000 of the country’s 100,000 schools not meeting standards last year. Duncan said that number would rise to 80,000 this year if relief is not offered.

“This is not a pass on accountability,” White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes told the NYT. “There will be a high bar for states seeking flexibility within the law.”States who apply for exemption from No Child Left Behind will be evaluated based on their adoption of their own “flexible and targeted” teacher accountability system, and implementation of higher standards for making high school students college and career ready, among other things, according to the Washington Post. Complete application guidelines will be available to states in September.

These evaluation points resemble Obama’s Race to the Top grant competition from 2010, which incentivized district improvement by picking winning states. Barnes, however, told the NYT that states would not be competing against one another with their waiver applications.

Successful applicants will be granted waivers this school year, which is expected to affect students almost immediately.

Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the House Education and Workforce Committee chairman, is perhaps the most vocal critic of the White House’s choice to use executive muscle, or what the NYT calls the “most sweeping use of executive authority to rewrite federal education law since Washington expanded its involvement in education in the 1960s.”

Kline says the waivers undermine in-progress congressional efforts to reform education law. “We plan to complete our reauthorization package this fall,” Kline said in a statement. Kline’s own state, Minnesota, announced today it plans to apply for the exemption immediately.

Overhauling the law appears to enjoy bipartisan support in congress. Three overhaul bills have been completed by Kline’s committee, which address the elimination of federal programs, financial flexibility for states, and charter schools. The committee, however, has yet to produce a rewrite of No Child’s school and teacher accountability provisions, according to the NYT, which are the ones proving impossible to fulfill.

White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes told reporters there is “no clear path toward a bipartisan bill to reform “No Child Left Behind,” and Duncan cited a “universal clamoring” from education officials in nearly every state seeking relief from the law. The standards have forced schools to focus almost exclusively on standardized testing, leading to significant cuts to arts, social studies and recess and in some cases causing states to lower testing standards to meet requirements.

Tennessee, for example, reported that 91 percent of its students were passing proficiency in math. Once new, tougher standards were adopted, that figure fell to 34 percent, the NYT reports.

“The current law serves as a disincentive to higher standards, rather than as an incentive,” Duncan said, adding that the plan is meant to serve as a “bridge” to Congressional action, not a challenge to it.