Education secretary defends No Child Left Behind waivers

“Providing waivers was always, always our Plan B," education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

By Sally Holland, CNN

Washington (CNN) -- Republicans and Democrats in the Senate agreed Thursday that they would prefer a reauthorized education bill that updates school standards, instead of allowing more waivers for states to bypass No Child Left Behind.
The 2001 No Child Left Behind act required that all students meet ambitious reading and math standards by 2014; schools that didn't would be subject to reforms or slashed funding. The standards have gotten tougher over the years and schools are struggling to keep up, or failing entirely. A reauthorized bill would set goals states see as more attainable.
“The bottom line is that it expired in 2007 except for a provision that says if Congress didn’t act, it would continue," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "Congress didn’t act so it’s continuing. That’s our fault. That’s on us."
    In 2011, the White House announced states could apply for waivers that would relieve them from provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or No Child Left Behind, while still giving them access to federal education funding. To get a waiver, they would have to meet standards laid out by the U.S. Department of Education.
    The waivers have been controversial among Republicans who object to the stipulations the Obama administration puts onto many states before they're awarded.
    "This simple waiver authority has turned into a conditional waiver with the secretary basically having more authority to make decisions that, in my view, should be made locally by state and local governments," Alexander said.
    Appearing before the committee, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said 34 states and the District of Columbia have been granted waivers while nine states, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education have requests under consideration. The deadline to apply for the waivers is the end of February.
    The waivers would become obsolete if Congress comes up with a deal to reauthorize No Child Left Behind with updated standards, Duncan said.
    “Providing waivers was always, always our Plan B. But I was not willing to stand idly by and do nothing while students and educators continue to suffer under No Child Left Behind,” Duncan said.
      Last session, the House and Senate both worked on bills that would have updated all or parts of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. One Senate bill never made it to the floor. The House committee passed five bills, but only one, a charter school bill, was brought to the floor for a vote. It died with no action in the Senate.
      “It’s no secret that for many years Congress has been dysfunctional,” Duncan said. “My team and I put in hundreds and hundreds of hours in what proved to be a fruitless effort over the past two years. In all candor, I would like to have gone to waivers earlier.”