Duncan: Change Bush 'No Child' law

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress on Wednesday that 82 percent of the nation’s public schools could be failing by next year under the standards of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law.

The projection amounts to a startling spike from current data, which shows that 37 percent of schools are on track to miss targets set by the law. 

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The Education Department released the statistic on the day Duncan testified for the first time before the Republican-led House Education and Workforce Committee in a move clearly aimed at jolting Congress to act on education proposals the Obama administration unveiled a year ago.

“Four out of five schools in America would not meet their goals under [No Child Left Behind] by next year,” Duncan said in his opening statement. “This is why we have to fix the law now. Nobody can support inaction and maintain the status quo.”

The law was enacted in 2002 after a bipartisan effort led by, among others, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who was then chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee. Schools that don’t meet targets face sanctions, including possible closure.

President Obama is pushing for an overhaul of the law’s standards and mandates, which he has criticized for imposing an unworkable “one-size-fits-all” requirement on schools nationwide. As a result, Duncan argued, schools and educators that have made vast improvements but still fall below the law’s standards are unfairly punished. 

At the core of the administration’s proposal, Duncan said, is more flexibility for states and local districts to meet standards by tailoring “solutions to the unique needs of their students.”

“This law is fundamentally broken, and we need to fix it, and we need to fix it this year,” Duncan said. “It has created a thousand ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed. We want to get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair, flexible and focused on the schools and students most at risk.”

As education secretary, Duncan enjoys rare bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, but in an indication of the divide on No Child Left Behind, Republican leaders on the committee made virtually no comment on his push for quick action.

Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) focused his comments and questions on broader spending issues, and a spokesman for the committee, Brian Newell, said afterward that Kline has not set a timetable for addressing No Child Left Behind. “He recognizes the urgent need to get something done,” Newell said.

Duncan pushed for the law to be rewritten by the beginning of the next school year, which means Congress would have to approve a bill by the August recess. In the Senate, Chairman Tom Harkin (Iowa) of the education committee has said he wants to introduce legislation by Easter.