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Duncan Develops 'Plan B' For Some Failing Schools

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Duncan Develops 'Plan B' For Some Failing Schools

Education

Duncan Develops 'Plan B' For Some Failing Schools

Duncan Develops 'Plan B' For Some Failing Schools

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/137182718/137182703" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Obama administration wants Congress to come up with a new version of No Child Left Behind by the beginning of next school year. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is warning that as many as 80 percent of schools could be labeled as "failing" under the definition in the old law. Lawmakers seem in no hurry to act, so Duncan says he's come up with a "Plan B" to keep some districts from that fate.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Obama administration is increasing pressure on Congress to overhaul to the No Child Left Behind law. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called the law a slow motion train wreck that will soon force good schools to be labeled as failing. And he's warning that if Congress does not act, the administration will move forward on its own.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the reaction to Secretary Duncan's effort shows how divided Congress is on the how to fix the law.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Secretary Duncan has been scheduling appearances all this week to drive home one single point.

Mr. ARNE DUNCAN (Secretary, Department of Education): We desperately want Congress to reauthorize. But if they don't, we need to think about what we can do to provide states that are really driving reform flexibility to move forward and not have them get crushed by the current law.

ABRAMSON: Crushed because Duncan says as many as 80 percent of the nation's schools will fail to meet federal requirements for student test scores. That would lead to sanctions that Duncan says would punish states that are making good-faith efforts towards improving student achievement. To address the problem and to goad Congress into action, Duncan says he'll cut some slack to deserving states.

Mr. DUNCAN: If states acted in bad faith, we don't play ball with them. States act in good faith and, you know, trying to reform and doing the right thing by children and teachers and principals, then we want to work with them.

ABRAMSON: The reaction to this idea helps explain why Congress has not been able to update No Child Left Behind. For Republicans, there is strong suspicion that the administration is holding a gun to the head of Congress: pass our idea of education reform or we'll accomplish the same goal without you, by granting waivers.

Congressman John Kline of Minnesota chairs the House Education Committee.

Representative JOHN KLINE (R-MN, Chair, House Education Committee): He can decide those policies that he favors, tell (unintelligible) of the waiver, if you'll do what I want you to do, you can have this waiver.

ABRAMSON: Kline says that's what happened with the administration's signature reform initiative, Race to the Top.

Rep. KLINE: When they granted to the secretary $5 billion and said go do good things for education, which were completely under the purview of the secretary of Education with no congressional input.

ABRAMSON: Chairman Kline says No Child Left Behind should be broken into pieces and reformed that way. Secretary Duncan says no way, NCLB needs to be swallowed in a giant bipartisan mouthful just as it was when it was enacted nearly a decade ago.

Margaret Spellings, education secretary under President Bush, says the problem is that the bipartisan agreement of 2001 is gone.

Ms. MARGARET SPELLINGS (Former Education Secretary): What's unique is not that we're stalled at the moment. What's unique is that we passed the darn thing in the first place.

ABRAMSON: Spellings says gridlock is tougher to break now because the House Education Committee is in new hands. Many of its newest members are freshmen Republicans who are deeply skeptical of the federal role in education.

Now, if Duncan feels the only alternative to congressional action is to grant waivers from the law, some warn that could open the floodgates for states to hide lousy performance.

Democratic Congressman George Miller of the House Education Committee says he constantly hears from schools that want a break because certain groups of students can't perform at grade level.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): Want relief for students with disabilities. Want relief for performance in a difficult school. Want relief from the school that's been merged with another school. I mean, there's no end to the reasons why relief should be granted. But those are years and months and opportunities in a child's life.

ABRAMSON: Kansas asked for waiver from No Child Left Behind earlier this year and was denied. Now, Kansas says it may return to ask once again for relief.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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