Obama education reforms advance as Congress falters
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's administration is moving ahead in reforming U.S. education without the help of the Congress, and will soon announce which states can opt out of the national education law known as "No Child Left Behind."
There are two bills currently in Congress to re-authorize the decade-old law that radically changed U.S. public schools.
"I don't think either one of those is going to move forward anytime soon, but I think the waiver process that we're doing now is going to be the only game in town," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a meeting of U.S. mayors in the U.S. capital.
"We hope to say 'yes' to the first set of waivers in the next couple of weeks, probably by the end of the month. We'll just do this on a rolling basis," he added.
In September, Obama announced that states could seek waivers from many of No Child Left Behind's key requirements, including one that identified certain schools as "failing."
But they had to agree to establish standards to help students prepare for college, administer tests to gauge student readiness, and reform schools with low graduation rates.
Eleven states have already applied for waivers.
Since No Child Left Behind nominally expired four years ago, Obama has been quietly revising federal education programs under its aegis.
Obama and Duncan have promoted learning standards and testing, cornerstones of the contentious legislation championed by former President George W. Bush and passed by members of both parties. But through grant programs such as the "Race to the Top," they have sought to redefine the benchmarks students must meet, as well as the consequences of missing standards and the tests of schools' performance.
With a national election now 11 months away, Obama will likely roll out more education policies important to Democrats' supporters.
Duncan told the mayors that the next round of Race to the Top grants, $550 million, would go directly to school districts and bypass states. The grant program was created in the 2009 economic stimulus plan to help states create uniform learning standards and foster the spread of charter schools.
Recently, a federal auditor said states had struggled to find enough staff to carry out all of the goals included in their grant applications and were generally lagging.
States contribute nearly half of funding for primary and secondary education, while the U.S. government pitches in about 8 percent. Federal support, however, has become more precious to school districts since the recession and housing bust ravaged their primary source of revenue - property taxes.
Duncan pointed to the strong demand for dollars in his meeting with mayors from across the country.
For the "Promise Neighborhood" program, the Department of Education received 300 applications, when it only had money for 20 communities, he said. Another grant program, Invest in Innovation, with enough funding to cover 49 projects, received 1,700 applications.
"This is frankly a challenge on both sides of the aisle," he said. "We absolutely want to maintain our traditional formula funding... but we want to maintain some flexibility to reward excellence."
(Reporting By Lisa Lambert; Editing by Eric Walsh)