Wednesday, December 4, 2013
BY JASON SINGER, The Portland Press Herald
PORTLAND -- An unintended consequence of the long fight over the federal debt ceiling is that Congress has put little effort into rewriting the No Child Left Behind Act. That means a revision won't be ready by the start of the school year.
Maine's 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said there's no chance that Congress will pass a reworked version by September. Congress just began its August recess.
"Unfortunately, congressional leaders have chosen to spend time on divisive political fights," Pingree, a Democrat, said in an email. "I'm really disappointed that they haven't gotten to important issues like this."
Without a new version of the controversial law, Maine and other states will likely have to seek waivers from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to avoid some of No Child Left Behind's harshest provisions.
Under the law, if 100 percent of students at a school aren't proficient in math and reading by 2014, the school will face steep penalties. In Maine, few or no schools will reach that goal.
The penalties for failing to reach 100 percent proficiency include bringing in management companies to run schools or firing entire school staffs. That doesn't necessarily work for mostly rural states like Maine, where school management companies rarely operate, said Stephen Bowen, Maine's education commissioner.
He said the same is true for firing entire staffs. "Maybe if we're in New York that's an option, but in Machias, Maine, you can't do that. Where are you going to get 30 new teachers in rural Maine?"
Nearly everyone in Congress agrees that No Child Left Behind needs improvement, lawmakers said. The specific areas of concern are up for debate.
If Congress doesn't pass a new version this fall, Duncan said he will use his authority to release states from some of the law's more criticized provisions.
That includes the 100 percent proficiency benchmark, and possibly the way states grade teachers. Teachers are now graded based on their educational background and training. They are not graded on how much their students progress from the beginning to the end of a school year, which many educators and lawmakers say is a better way of evaluating teachers' performance.
Bowen said Maine, likely as part of a group of New England states, would request a waiver from Duncan in exchange for adopting more progressive education policies.
Not everyone is enamored with the idea of waivers. Pingree said she's not sure the U.S. Department of Education understands the needs of rural school districts, so any reforms the department might want in exchange for a waiver might not help Maine.
Pingree would prefer that Congress -- with 535 members' viewpoints -- pass a better bill, she said.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, gave a conditional endorsement for the waivers. In an email, she said she's "sympathetic to providing some relief" with waivers, "but I would (first) want to review the specifics of the Administration's plan."
She said it's still possible that Congress could pass a new bill this year. In February, Collins and U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, proposed the No Child Left Behind Flexibility and Improvements Act, which was never voted on.
Teacher performance and proficiency benchmarks aren't the only issues with No Child Left Behind. Bowen said the revision must also address state standards.
Under the current bill, states decide what proficiency means to them. So a student who's considered highly proficient in Mississippi might be considered failing in Maine, because Maine has tough standards compared with most other states.
Setting up national standards, however, is a controversial issue. Many conservatives see national standards as an intrusion on states' rights.
Snowe didn't comment on potential waivers, but said in an email that she is looking forward to "work(ing) with the administration and my colleagues to make sure we correct deficiencies in the law and better address issues such as accountability and flexibility."
"It is absolutely imperative that we make significant improvements in our educational system so that students will be better equipped to enter the workforce and maintain our nation's economic leadership," she said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said he would enthusiastically welcome a waiver from the Obama administration.
"This will allow states some flexibility to improve education in ways that best reflect the specific needs of the students in each state," Michaud said in an email. "We cannot continue a one size fits all approach that doesn't recognize the unique needs of largely rural states like Maine."