Letter to the Editor

Waivers aren’t watering down ‘No Child Left Behind’ law

Michael Gerson’s July 20 column, “ ‘No Child’ is being left behind” [Washington Forum], missed the mark on several points.

In designing the waiver process authorized by Congress under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, our goals were clear: Protect children, set a high bar and provide as much as flexibility as possible. Today, 32 states and the District have accountability systems that capture more children at risk than does NCLB. States also agreed to adopt college- and career-ready standards in exchange for waivers, so Mr. Gerson was wrong to say that the “payoff” to states is “lower standards.” NCLB prompted some states to lower standards to meet performance targets.

Mr. Gerson was also wrong to suggest that the “bargain” between the administration and states includes “merit pay” or “greater use of charter schools.” While we support high-quality charter schools and provide funding to districts to build compensation models linked in part to student growth, neither policy is linked to waivers.

Finally, we do not, as Mr. Gerson stated, “dispense with options for parents,” such as choice or tutoring. Instead, we allow school systems to choose remedies for underperforming schools.

The transparency features of NCLB are worth keeping, but the accountability framework does not work. It makes no distinction among chronically low-performing schools, improving schools that may or may not be underperforming and high-performing schools that nevertheless have persistent achievement gaps. Under NCLB, they are all labeled “failures.” Under waiver accountability systems, they are treated differently, with locally designed interventions.

No Child Left Behind is five years overdue for reauthorization, but Congress has yet to act to fix the law. In the meantime, we can’t wait. Children get only one chance for a world-class education.

Arne Duncan, Washington

The writer is the U.S. education secretary.

 
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