Thursday January 27, 2011 | 05:59 PM

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is intensifying his push to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act in time for the September start of a new school year, following a State of the Union address by President Barack Obama on Tuesday that carried a heavy focus on education.

Duncan convened a bipartisan group of lawmakers Wednesday on Capitol Hill to discuss the legislation and he reached out to rural America in a conference call with rural education reporters.

"No Child Left Behind doesn't work in every school in America, and particularly for schools in rural communities," the education secretary said during the call.

Joined by National Rural Education Association director John Hill, Duncan outlined a vision for a rewritten Elementary and Secondary Education Act that is, so far, short on specifics beyond the "Blueprint for Reform" the education department released last winter.

Duncan said he didn't want a "huge bill," and he envisioned transforming the Department of Education into "an engine of innovation, rather than a compliance-driven bureaucracy."

Flexibility is key, he said, especially when it comes to legislating for rural schools. "For the vast majority of schools, (the Obama administration's outline for a rewritten ESEA) moves away from No Child Left Behind's one-size-fits-all approach to reform," Duncan said.

Some examples:

• The rewritten ESEA, according to Duncan, will get rid of the Adequate Yearly Progress requirements imposed on schools. Under current law, all schools are expected to reach the 100 percent proficiency level by 2014.

"No one likes how No Child Left Behind labels schools as failures even when they're making gains," Duncan said.

In rural schools, Hill noted, the performance of one student can determine whether a school makes adequate yearly progress or not. That's because schools have to show each subset of their student population — learning disabled, English language learners, low-income etc. — is making progress in order to meet the federal benchmark.

• Under No Child Left Behind, schools that repeatedly don't make adequate yearly progress are required to offer parents the opportunity to send their children to other schools in the same district. The Obama administration is proposing an education law that removes the mandate that school districts offer that choice to parents.

"Public school choice might make sense in an urban community," Duncan said, "but if there's not another school for 30 miles, it doesn't make as much sense."

• The rewritten ESEA would remove No Child Left Behind's provisions surrounding "highly qualified" teachers. The current federal mandate requires that schools publicly report when they assign teachers to a subject that they're not certified to teach. Duncan said he wants to shift the law's focus to effectiveness, rather than certification.

"You have lots of amazing teachers in rural communities who, by law, by definition, are not labeled highly qualified," he said.

• Duncan acknowledged that a rewritten ESEA would emphasize competitive grants, a prospect that worries many in rural school districts who don't think they can win sufficient funding when they're required to compete against large, urban school systems.

"When it comes to competition for some of the grants and so forth, we encourage everyone to look at ways to level the playing field," Hill said. "Rural schools don't have the manpower. They don't have the capacity to fill out grant (applications)."

Asked how the playing field could be leveled, Duncan was light on specifics.

"We're not looking for fancy PowerPoint presentations," Duncan said. "We're looking for folks with real vision, with real courage.

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