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.
Barnes said the president directed his administration to create the waiver program because there was "no clear path to a bipartisan bill in Congress."
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Education, said he understands why President Obama has decided to act without Congress.
"Time is simply running out to get a comprehensive bill done," Kline said in a statement. "We can't expect schools to continue to function under 10-year-old policies. It's not good for our students or our economy."
While the specific qualifications for states to receive a waiver will not be released until September, Duncan said states will generally have to show a plan for improvement.
For example, the waiver will require students to meet "more flexible and targeted" accountability standards by showing improvement in test scores year-over-year rather than meet a universal test score threshold as is required by No Child Left Behind. Also, schools will have to emphasize college and career readiness standards instead of the proficiency standards set forth in No Child Left behind.
Duncan said the Bush-era law is "forcing districts into one-size-fits-all solutions that just don't work."
And states have been looking for ways to escape those "one-size-fits-all solutions."
Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky applied for waivers before Duncan even announced they would be offered, while Idaho, South Dakota and Montana have said they plan to ignore parts of the law.
Almost 40 percent of Idaho schools did not meet No Child Left Behind's academic yearly progress benchmarks for the past academic year, earning them a "failing" distinction. Twenty percent of South Dakota schools fell below the mark as did 27 percent of Montana schools.
Duncan said the NCLB standards are an "impediment to where states want to go and need to go."
"The current law doesn't begin to capture the hard work that is going on around the nation today," he said. "We have a fed law that is an impediment, that is a disincentive, for the great work the states are doing."