Washington • The one-sized-fits-all national requirements of No Child Left Behind would give way to standards that states write for themselves under legislation Senate Democrats announced Tuesday.
The state-by-state approach to education standards is already in place in most states, which received waivers to the requirements in exchange for customized school improvement plans. The 1,150-page proposal from Senate education committee chairman Tom Harkin would require the remaining states to develop their own reform plans. Education Secretary Arne Duncan would still have final say over those improvement plans, and schools would still have to measure students’ achievements.
The U.S. Department of Education announced in June 2012 that it granted Utah’s request to disregard key parts of the controversial No Child Left Behind federal education law.
To date, almost all Utah schools receive some sort of funding from the program, said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Office of Education. The office has yet to draw up a formal statement on the proposal, Peterson said.
In Washington, it faces uncertain prospects. A politically polarized Congress has failed to renew No Child Left Behind, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, since it expired in 2007. Harkin’s Republican counterpart, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, has supported updating No Child Left Behind but his approach has not always melded with Harkin’s.
And lawmakers in the Republican-led House were reluctant to take steps that could be seen as telling local schools how to best teach their students and enrage tea party activists. Lawmakers also have been critical of Duncan’s tenure as secretary and were unlikely to rush to give him more authority.
The nation’s largest teacher union, the National Education Association, applauded lawmakers for taking up changes to what it called a “flawed law” but urged them not to add importance to testing.
“The time has come for Congress to craft a fair, flexible and innovative K-12 law that leads to real sustainable change for our children while keeping the ESEA goals of equity and shared responsibility front and center,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said in a statement.
Duncan has pushed Congress to update the law to accommodate challenges officials did not anticipate when the measure was passed on a bipartisan basis in 2001. But absent congressional action, Duncan has been giving states permission to ignore parts of the law that are unworkable in exchange for detailed school improvement plans.
Already, 37 states and the District of Columbia have been given such waivers. Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming are still waiting to hear about their applications, along with a coalition of California districts.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act governs all schools that receive federal dollars for poor, minority, disabled and students whose primary language is not English. In exchange for those federal dollars, those schools must meet standards — previously set by Washington but increasingly dictated by state capitols.
In a memo circulating on Capitol Hill and among education advocates, Harkin’s Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee acknowledges criticism of No Child Left Behind’s requirements as “setting inflexible benchmarks without considering the different needs of schools and without recognizing student progress.”
Instead, Harkin’s bill would offer states greater flexibility to improve students’ education.
The proposal “gets the federal government out of the business of micromanaging schools and instead enables states and districts to focus on turning around chronically struggling schools and those with significant achievement gaps,” according to the committee’s memo.
But that does not mean schools would be off the hook for measuring students’ achievements. Students would still be tested in reading and math each year from third to eighth grades, as well as once in high school. Schools would also have to measure students’ aptitude in science at least three times between third grade and graduation.
But those tests could be done through student portfolios, projects or traditional multiple-choice tests, an effort to win over the law’s critics who said too much emphasis was placed on testing.
Tribune reporter Annie Knox contributed to this article.