On Friday, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are scheduled to detail plans to waive some of the law’s toughest requirements, including that schools ensure that every student be proficient in math and reading by 2014 or risk escalating sanctions.
In exchange for relief, the administration will require a quid pro quo: States must adopt changes that could include the expansion of charter schools, linking teacher evaluation to student performance and upgrading academic standards. As many as 45 states are expected to seek waivers.
For many students, the most tangible impact could be what won’t happen. They won’t see half their teachers fired, their principal removed or school shut down because some students failed to test at grade level — all potential consequences under the law.
“It’s a momentous development,” said Jack Jennings, president of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy. The White House is essentially rewriting the law, he said.
Duncan said the administration has no other choice, driven by mounting pressures on schools caused by the law and no clear sign that Congress will fix its flaws. Lawmakers have been trying for four years.
“I feel compelled to do this,” Duncan said as he rode a bus two weeks ago to tour schools in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio, among other states. “My absolute preference is for Congress to fix it for the entire country. But there’s a level of dysfunction in Congress that’s paralyzing. And we’re getting to the point that this law is holding back innovation, holding back progress. We need to unleash that. We need to get out of the way.”
For Duncan, one of the most visible members of Obama’s Cabinet, the move is likely to cement his reputation as arguably the most powerful education secretary in the department’s history.
Duncan already has propelled school systems across the country to make far-reaching changes by awarding a record $8 billion, provided by the economic stimulus package, to states and districts that embraced Obama’s agenda.
Even states that didn’t win money through the best-known of those programs, called Race to the Top, changed policies and laws to compete for the funds.
Duncan “walked into office and was handed a big pot of money and very few congressional restrictions,” Jennings said. “Congress went off and got into health reform, the budget, all these other issues that sucked up their attention. He was left alone with his money and took advantage of the opportunity. Now he’s got another opportunity.”
Some say the administration is reaching too far.