WASHINGTON — Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, one of the original authors of the landmark No Child Left Behind education law, now is trying to dismantle aspects of the law's core goal of getting all kids working at grade level by 2014, a benchmark that for a decade was considered the ultimate quest of American education.
Isakson and Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Lamar Alexander, R- Tenn., a former governor who also served as education secretary under former President George H.W. Bush, want to do away with a provision in the law that requires students in the more than 100,000 public school districts across the country to make "adequate yearly progress" toward preset benchmarks in math and reading every year.
The legislation, introduced last week, would nix "adequate yearly progress" requirements, and it asks states to zero in on their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools. Isakson and Georgia education officials also will request on Tuesday a federal waiver for their state on meeting adequate yearly progress in order to avoid more schools being labeled as failing.
The proposed measure is part of a series of education bills that the lawmakers said were designed to "fix" No Child Left Behind. The measures would do this, the lawmakers say, by giving states and school districts greater flexibility to improve state accountability systems, improve teacher and principal professional development programs, consolidate federal education programs to give state and local education leaders more freedom in meeting local needs and expand the number of charter schools.
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"We knew, the nine of us that wrote NCLB, that if (adequate yearly progress) worked it would be harder and harder for schools to meet it with the requirement to raise the benchmark each year," Isakson said.
So hard, in fact, education experts say, that few in the field expect the nation to get all students working at grade level, or "proficient," in reading and math by 2014 as the law mandates.
In recent years, the pressure associated with yearly testing goals has led to widespread complaints from schools, districts and states. There have been increasingly creative attempts to redefine what "proficient" means to avoid penalties for not meeting that goal, cheating scandals across the country and political backlash.
No Child Left Behind's accountability standards for various subgroups of students — such as minorities, English-language learners, low-income and those with disabilities — have helped schools get a better picture of performance and, in many cases, aided them in focusing resources better to help those kids make academic gains.
However, federal education officials project that 82 percent of the nation's public schools could fail to meet higher proficiency targets this year, and would face sanctions that ultimately can include a loss of federal aid.
Proposals that could drastically alter how children in public schools are educated have languished for years in Senate and House of Representatives education committees. Wrangling over the law has grown so rancorous that a frustrated Obama administration plans on using executive authority to waive some requirements of the law, essentially freeing states from any harsh consequences if their schools fail to meet the federal testing requirements.
President Barack Obama is expected on Friday to roll out the details of what the White House is calling "relief from key provisions of No Child Left Behind."
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers have said it would be a mistake for the administration to bypass Congress. This is a particularly sore spot for Republicans, who already are bristling at what they see as the executive branch's broader attempts to sidestep their authority on a number of fronts by issuing an increasing number of federal regulations.
"It's not just the specifics that worry the Republicans, it's the idea that he doesn't have the authority to change the law," said Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education organization.
But even some Republicans question Isakson's push to unravel a law that the previous presidential administration views with pride.
"I'm concerned about these proposals," said Sandy Kress, who was a senior education adviser to President George W. Bush. "In a way we are going backwards, mainly to the degree they water accountability down. We've gotten to a place where we care about consequential accountability for disadvantaged students ... but to get out of the game altogether is beyond me."
(Rob Hotakainen and Medill News Service's Hannah Vickers, Alexandra Arkin and Amarita Bansal contributed to this report.)
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