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No Child Left Behind: Education Secretary Says He Will Act If Congress Doesn't

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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a House committee hearing in March.
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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a House committee hearing in March.

Secretary's announcement faces some disapproval

Congress has been marred by gridlock these past few months, getting to the brink of a government shutdown only to reach a last-minute deal to keep the lights on in federal buildings. While surveying this legislative landscape, Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced he's preparing to reform No Child Left Behind (NCLB) if Congress fails to act. That doesn't sit well with Virginia Republican Rep. Morgan Griffith.

"Well I don't approve of that. I think these agencies across the board are taking on authority that they don't have. There are three branches of government. The Executive Branch needs to realize that," he says.

Griffith says No Child Left Behind was written by Congress and ought to be tweaked by Congress. He isn't alone with his skepticism of the secretary's announcement. Duncan says he's looking to grant waivers to states and school districts, though he hasn't released the specifics. The superintendant of Roanoke City Public Schools, Dr. Rita Bishop, says she's glad Duncan is looking to make the policy less rigid, yet she's dubious of his announcement thus far.

"I think that the secretary owes definitions to school districts," she says. "I thought it was a pretty puny statement just to say, 'We're going to be more flexible.' What does that mean specifically?"

NCLB: A 'fair' assessment?

"Puny" statement or not, most everyone –- on both sides of the political aisle –- is in agreement that states need flexibility under the nation's current education policy. NCLB instituted nationalized tests to gauge how schools perform. According to the Department of Education's latest data, reading achievement levels for eight-graders in Virginia have declined since 2004. And math scores improved initially and then slumped a little in 2009.

"There's a serious question of whether the assessment is fair or not," says Tidewater Democrat Bobby Scott.

Scott sits on the House committee that's charged with reauthorizing the legislation. Besides tight budgets that are hampering schools throughout Virginia, he says No Child Left Behind is often blind to what's happening at the local level.

"[For example,] some schools are receiving children way behind, and they do a good job, but the children are still a little behind, and they are designated as failing schools. Other schools aren't doing anything, but the children they receive are ahead, and they don't do anything, and their children still pass and they're given credit," he says.

Under the 2001 NCLB law, states get federal funds after they lay out their own plan for improving test scores. But Northern Virginia Democratic Rep. Jim Moran says some school districts and states have it more difficult than others because of higher populations of low-income students and students for whom English is a second language.

"We're making a lot of progress, but we ought not get punished because those students have hurdles that, you know, take sometimes years to overcome. I don't think you can apply a cookie-cutter approach," Moran says.

Federal versus state action

Moran supports the education secretary's plan to reform NCLB from his office in Washington.

"He's going to have to be largely a case-by-case basis, hopefully achieving some consistency," Moran says.

But Republican Scott Riggell of Virginia Beach and most of his freshmen colleagues in Congress see it the other way.

"More autonomy and decision-making ability needs to be shifted from the federal government back to the state and to the local level," Riggell says.

Duncan says it would be ideal for Congress to act on its own to reauthorize the law. The question now is whether this polarized Congress overcome the touchy political issues involved with reforming education policy, like charter schools, voucher programs and religious issues that are likely to get thrown in the fray. And if Congress can't, Duncan says he will.

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