Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is signaling that he's prepared to give public schools relief from federal mandates under No Child Left Behind if Congress does not pass the law's long-awaited overhaul and re-authorization this year.
"This is absolutely plan B," Duncan told reporters during an embargoed conference call on Friday. "The prospect of doing nothing is what I'm fighting against."
That relief could take the form of granting waivers on test scoring to flexibility on how schools spend federal dollars. "We can't afford to do nothing," he said.
Both Republicans and Democrats agree that the mandate, signed into law in 2002 with bi-partisan support, is dated and flawed. One of the major complaints is that some schools have been labeled failures despite making improvements.
Duncan said he's encouraged by talks with lawmakers in recent weeks that indicate the law may see revisions this year, but he says he wants a backup plan in case that doesn't happen.
The re-authorization of the law is already four years overdue, and the Obama administration has called for the overhaul to conclude by this fall. Lawmakers are indicating this will not be possible, and some are not happy about Duncan's plan.
"It seems premature at this point to take steps outside the legislative process that would address NCLB's problems in a temporary and piecemeal way,' says Senate Education Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Republican John Kline, the House Education Committee chairman, says he's slowed down negotiations because Democrats on the committee "have really started to engage." Kline has his own plans to introduce a bill to give school districts more flexibility in how they spend federal money, such as allowing them to move money for teacher training to underfunded special education programs.
Duncan warns that 83 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled as failing next year based on No Child Left Behind rules. Some education experts question that figure, but most agree that states will fail to meet the law's goal of having 100 percent of American public school students proficient in math and reading by 2014. Schools that fail to measure up can face sanctions that include firing teachers and closing schools.
Duncan says the department is talking to state officials, teachers, principals and parents about how to help schools if the law isn't rewritten this year. He says any action taken by his department won't prevent Congress from continuing to negotiate the bill's re-authorization