Aug. 8, 2011 -- President Obama and at least some of his Republican challengers have common ground on at least one issue -- the need to alter the controversial No Child Left Behind education reform law.
With more than half of America's public schools in danger of being labeled "failing" this year, the Obama administration has agreed to grant states waivers from the stringent testing standards required by the No Child Left Behind law, a law that four of the eight announced GOP presidential candidates have also said should be revamped.
The law, signed by former president George W. Bush in 2002, mandates that 100 percent of elementary and secondary students be proficient in reading and math by 2014, a goal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said more than 80 percent of schools will not meet. Schools that do not achieve 100 percent proficiency risk losing federal funding.
"Unfortunately under current law you actually see some states moving closer to a 90 percent failure rate and to me that doesn't reflect reality. That's an absolute distortion of the picture," Duncan said in a conference call today. "To see them all labeled as failures is dishonest. It is demoralizing to teachers and it's confusing to students and parents."
Duncan said the administration wants to focus on how much students and schools improve, not on base test scores.
"No Child Left Behind treated everybody the same, as interchangeable, and that just doesn't make any sense to me," Duncan said.
The unpopularity of No Child Left Behind has been growing not just among Democrats, but among Republicans as well. In fact four GOP presidential candidates have spoken out against the law.
As governor of Utah Jon Huntsman, was one of the first governors to try to circumvent NCLB by signing a state law in 2005 that said Utah's education standards trumped those of No Child Left Behind. The Utah law was later overturned in part because the state could have lost $76 million in federal funding by not adhering to NCLB's standards.
Herman Cain said in May that it was another example of an "unfunded federal mandate" and should be eliminated.
Two Republican candidates, Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann, take their opposition a step father, supporting the abolition of the entire Department of Education.
"It's a propaganda machine," Paul said to a group of home school advocates in March, according to Politico. "They don't educate our kids, they indoctrinate our kids. In public education they're intimidated to be conformists."
While Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have both said the Department of Education should be pared down, they support No Child Left Behind.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, said he supported the bill in the Congress because it provided a quantitative measurement of how U.S. schools were performing.
"I voted for it because I thought, well, we need to get the facts and we need to have some national system to be able to determine whether we are in fact succeeding or failing," Santorum said in a January interview with CNS's Terence Jeffery. "Well, guess what? We are failing."
White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes said the new waivers will not give states a "pass on accountability."
"There will be a high bar for states seeking flexibility within the law," Barnes said in a statement. "We'll encourage all states to apply and each one should have a chance to succeed. But those that don't will have to comply with No Child Left Behind's requirements, until Congress enacts a law that will deliver change to all 50 states."
Many states have called on Congress to reform the law. In his State of the Union address, President Obama said lawmakers should pass a revamped education bill before this school year begins, a timeline he re-stated in March.