Waivers not enough, US states want new schools law

Mon Feb 6, 2012 1:12pm EST

Feb 6 (Reuters) - Policymakers across the United States are pushing Congress to pass a new education plan, saying current law and recent measures undertaken by President Barack Obama will not work in the long-term.

In a letter to members of both chambers, the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments and the National Association of Counties ask for Congress's "leadership and urgency to fix and reform" national education policy.

"The ultimate goal for all states and local school districts is to ensure all their students succeed in the classroom to become college-and-career-ready upon high school graduation and succeed in college and in their careers," they wrote.

"States and local school districts will not be able to accomplish this goal under the current law."

The current federal education plan known as "No Child Left Behind" nominally expired four years ago, but as Congress has not passed a new version, states and local school districts have had to continue operating within the limits set by a law many have criticized as restrictive and unworkable.

Among the critics stands Obama, who is now allowing states to opt out of parts of the law as long as they abide by his administration's requirements on college preparation, testing and boosting graduation rates.

The administration has also rolled out a series of discretionary grants, specifically the "Race to the Top" program, in order to influence state education policies.

Last month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a meeting of U.S. mayors that two bills in Congress to lay out a new version of No Child Left Behind are not going to move forward soon, making the waiver process "the only game in town."

The states and counties, though, warned the waivers were not sufficient. They asked Congress to pass a new plan by the beginning of the next school year, typically in late August or early September.

The waiver process "may work for some states in the short term, but it may not work for all states and is not sustainable," they said.

The federal government only provides 10 percent of public schools funding, but that money has grown more precious since the housing downturn caused the main source of money, property taxes, to crumble.

The groups asked for greater flexibility in making reforms and deciding how to spend federal funds, along with fewer documentation requirements that "are unnecessarily burdensome."

Often, the U.S. government will cut the money it sends to schools if the state or school district reduces its own public education spending. Keeping these "maintenance of effort" levels has recently become costly for many districts, the groups said.

"During difficult fiscal conditions and economic recessions... it is simply not realistic to expect states and localities to hold funding constant in all programs," they wrote.