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WAIVING GOODBYE TO NCLB?: U.S. Education Secretary Discusses Options to Grant Relief from NCLB’s Requirements In Absence of Congressional Action

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"Our first priority is to have Congress rewrite the law. If that doesn’t get done, we have the obligation to provide relief in exchange for reform.”

In a June 10 conference call with reporters and a June 13 op-ed for PoliticoU.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discussed his options for waiving certain requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) should Congress be unable to finish a reauthorization of the law by this fall. Duncan declined to name specific portions of the law that could be waived, but the New York Times , citing aides to Duncan, reported that the main target would be the requirement that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Duncan said that the Obama administration would immediately reach out to governors and other key state leaders to see which provisions of the law they consider the most serious obstacles and determine what kinds of reforms they would accept in exchange for the increased flexibility.

“We’re not going to sit here and do nothing,” Duncan said. “Our first priority is to have Congress rewrite the law. If that doesn’t get done, we have the obligation to provide relief in exchange for reform.”

Congressional leaders responsible for rewriting the law reacted cautiously to Duncan’s remarks. A spokeswoman for House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) said that Kline “remains concerned about any initiative that would allow the secretary to pick winners and losers in the nation’s education system. She told the New York Times that Kline supports “providing states and school districts with enhanced flexibility, believing a more streamlined federal role in education combined with reduced regulatory burdens would encourage greater innovation and higher academic achievement.”

In a statement, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said, “The best way to fix the problems in existing law is to pass a better one. We are making good progress toward introducing a bill that will advance that goal. Given the bipartisan commitment in Congress to fixing No Child Left Behind, it seems premature at this point to take steps outside the legislative process that would address NCLB’s problems in a temporary and piecemeal way.”

Duncan underscored that he was not issuing an ultimatum to Congress by making his announcement. Instead, he said he is “more optimistic” about the progress on reauthorization in the last few weeks than he has ever been, and added that providing temporary relief to states could make it easier for Congress to work on a comprehensive bill.

“If we do this, it doesn’t necessarily preclude Congress from continuing to act,” Duncan said. “The prospect of doing nothing is what we’re fighting against.” Duncan added that he wanted to see “real action” in the fall. “It’ll either come from Congress or from us. It’s got to happen in real-people time, not Washington time. Principals, superintendents, and children cannot wait forever for the legislative process to work itself out. As it exists now, No Child Left Behind is creating a slow-motion train wreck for children, parents, and teachers.”

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