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Obama to offer No Child Left Behind waivers

By Molly O'Toole

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The administration will provide qualifying states waivers from No Child Left Behind after Congressional inaction on reforming the program, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on Monday.

President Barack Obama had called for reform to the federal education law before the start of the school year, but Congress has yet to pass any legislation, according to a Department of Education statement.

NCLB links federal educational aid to results from standardized testing, and has come under fire from critics on several fronts. Among other things they say the testing makes teachers focus too narrowly on material that would raise scores.

Despite a 16-month-old proposal, numerous Congressional meetings and hearings to fix NCLB have failed due to "partisan politics in the House," the Department of Education statement said.

"With no clear path to a bipartisan bill in Congress, the President has directed us to move forward with an administrative process to provide flexibility within the law for states and districts that are willing to embrace reform," Barnes said.

States that seek relief from certain provisions of NCLB must demonstrate commitment to education reform, she said, adding that the process is "not a pass on accountability."

Duncan said the current NCLB law is "forcing districts into one-size-fits-all solutions that just don't work."

"The President understands this and he has directed us to move ahead in providing relief," he stated.

"We're still hopeful that Congress can continue its work this fall. In the meantime, states and districts have an opportunity to move forward."

REPUBLICAN CONCERN

Republican Representative John Kline of Minnesota, who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, responded to news of the waiver move with concern.

"Secretary Duncan and I both recognize the critical need for improvement in the nation's education system," Kline said in a statement.

"I remain concerned that temporary measures instituted by the department, such as conditional waivers, could undermine the committee's efforts ... I will be monitoring the secretary's actions closely to ensure they are consistent with the law and Congressional intent," Kline said.

He and others had requested information from Duncan about the proposed plan in a letter dated June 23, according to Jennifer Allen, a spokeswoman for the House committee.

Allen said in an email that they did not receive a response until July 6, and the answer failed to provide the requested details about the "'waivers-in-exchange-for-reform' proposal."

The administration proposes to reform NCLB by a more flexible and targeted accountability system based on measuring annual student growth on college- and career-ready standards, focusing on data and quality of teachers and principals.

The final details of the "flexibility package," will be made public in September.

"In September we're going to come back ... and we are encouraging and hoping that every single state will indeed apply for this flexibility," said Barnes at the announcement Monday afternoon. "But the bar will be high."

At the afternoon announcement, Duncan said, "We have to educate our way to a better economy."

(Reporting by Molly O'Toole; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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