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Obama to offer states waivers on school-aid law

By Molly O'Toole

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration will allow U.S. states to opt out of some of the No Child Left Behind education law because Congress has failed to reform the controversial program, two senior officials said on Monday.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes told a news conference that waivers would be granted to states that showed a commitment to improving their schools even if they did not meet current benchmarks for gains in student test scores.

But they said details of how the waivers would work would not be released until September.

The law, which was proposed by President George W. Bush and went into effect in 2002, links federal aid to public schools to results from standardized testing. It has come under fire from critics on several fronts including contentions that the testing makes teachers focus too narrowly on material that would raise scores.

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, the Department of Education said, blaming "partisan politics in the House" in a statement.

"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.

She said the process is "not a pass on accountability."

The administration wants to introduce more flexible benchmarks based on measuring annual student growth on college- and career-ready standards and quality of teachers and principals.

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.

"I remain concerned that temporary measures instituted by the department, such as conditional waivers, could undermine the committee's efforts," Kline said.

Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said it was clear Republicans and Obama's Democrats would not agree any time soon on how to amend the law despite its shortcomings.

"Many aspects of the current law don't work to improve student outcomes," he said, saying he was encouraged that the reforms required for a waiver would keep schools accountable for students' achievement, while offering more flexibility.

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