By Liz Bowie and John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun
10:03 PM EDT, September 22, 2011
President Barack Obama is prepared to offer states that have embraced his administration's key education reform initiatives — including Maryland — a break from the most rigid requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, senior officials said Thursday.
Officials said the president will announce the sweeping changes Friday, allowing states to seek a waiver from elements of the Bush administration's signature education law if they agree to three key reforms, all of which Maryland has adopted. The waivers would take effect next year.
"I think we as a state are positioned very well," said Bernard J. Sadusky, Maryland's interim superintendent of schools. He said he expects that the state will apply for a waiver but that he first wants to look at specifics of Obama's proposal.
The Obama administration wants to ease the pressure on schools to meet progressively more challenging standards, which would require every child to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.
About one-third of Maryland schools have been labeled as failing, and that group was expected to grow significantly in the next two years. Eventually, the state would have required major changes — removing teachers and principals, and overhauling programs — even in schools that are considered top performers but where a handful of special education or minority students is failing tests.
"It removes the arbitrary targets that rise each year," Sadusky said, and gives the state leeway to develop standards that take into account whether a school is improving. "It seems to me that labeling a school incorrectly is a major part of the issue."
Under Obama's plan, states could set more modest targets and aim reforms at the bottom 15 percent of schools.
Obama administration officials said they will not back down from expecting high standards for students.
"We remain absolutely committed to accountability," said a senior administration official who spoke on background.
Officials said the administration is moving ahead with waivers because of Congress' failure to rewrite the 9-year-old education reform law. But some Republicans contend that congressional approval is needed.
The fact that waivers are needed underscores the partisan gridlock that has gripped Washington since the midterm election last year, when tea party conservatives helped Republicans win control of the House of Representatives. Despite initial indications that Republicans and Democrats could work together on education policy, little progress has been made toward rewriting the No Child Left Behind law.
The tenor represents a major shift from a decade ago, when current House Speaker John A. Boehner — then a little-known GOP lawmaker from Ohio — helped to build his leadership credentials by working with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a liberal Massachusetts Democrat, to move the No Child Left Behind Act through Congress.
"It's a climate here in which it's very difficult to use the type of legislative process where people sit down and work out their differences," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, adding that he would withhold judgment on the Obama administration's plan until specifics are available.
"Some people read the election in 2010 the wrong way. The public wants us to work together," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "If we can't agree on educational issues, which go to the essence of our society, we're in trouble."
States can apply for waivers as early as mid-November and get a response by early next year.
"There are some states well on the way toward the reforms we are talking about. We expect those to be early in the process," a second senior administration official said.
If Maryland obtains a waiver, schools would no longer be labeled as failing if small numbers of students are not passing state tests. The state would have to intervene in the bottom 15 percent of schools, and it could redirect federal dollars now spent to tutor students in troubled schools.
To receive a waiver, senior administration officials said, states would have to adopt new "college- and career-ready" standards, as well as tests to show proficiency. Maryland and 44 other states are now adopting those so-called "common core" standards and are developing tests that will be in use by 2014.
States also must establish an evaluation system for teachers and principals and have a way of intervening at the worst schools. Maryland is doing both.
States would have to reward high-achieving schools that serve low-income students, an issue on which Sadusky said he wants more information. He said receiving a waiver would not mean that Maryland would ease pressure on schools to improve.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have been largely critical of the Obama administration's proposal, which Department of Education officials have been hinting at for months. Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the announcement Friday could undermine congressional efforts to pass a broader education measure.
"I simply cannot support a process that grants the secretary of education sweeping authority to hand pick winners and losers," the Minnesota Republican said in a statement. "This sets a dangerous precedent, and every single American should be extremely wary."
But Obama administration officials said they are convinced they have the authority to make the changes without congressional approval.
"We want to let states and districts know that relief arrives tomorrow," a senior administration official said.