DC Shuttle: Duncan Hints at NCLB Alternative, Distance Learning Boosted and Other Higher Ed News from Washington

On June 11, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that if Congress is unable to pass a comprehensive overhaul of the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law before the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, he would grant states waivers for the law’s most burdensome requirements if they agreed to implement a set of reforms. While he has not fully developed the alternative plan, Secretary Duncan said that the reforms would most likely follow the lines of the department’s Race to the Top initiative. The program awards grants to states adopting specific methods for turning around failing schools, implementing new curriculum standards and collecting student- and teacher-performance data. Secretary Duncan said that the waivers were only intended as a failsafe measure to prevent schools across the country from losing federal funding, as NCLB’s most strict benchmarks will come due in 2012. Some education reform advocates think that offering an alternative will take the pressure off of legislators to push a compromise through before the fall. House Education and Workforce Committee Chair John Kline (R-MN) said that he was concerned that trading waivers for prescribed reforms continues Secretary Duncan’s strategy of exchanging funding for policy changes. “I don’t think that is the appropriate role for the secretary,” Congressman Kline said. Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA) said he worried that states might agree to the changes necessary to receive a waiver but then fail to implement any real changes. The Obama administration and Senate HELP Chair Tom Harkin (D-IA) have both stressed their commitment to a full overhaul of NCLB, but consensus on which changes need to be made had proven difficult to achieve, despite bipartisan agreement that the current law needs to be reformed. Secretary Duncan said that although the waivers were a last-resort contingency plan, he felt compelled to offer an alternative to depending on an NCLB overhaul. “Providing regulatory-flexibility will give Congress time to work together around a set of reforms while giving states, districts and schools the freedom to advance reform by adopting high standards,” he said.
On Wednesday, the House Education and Workforce Committee voted 27-11 to approve legislation (H.R. 2117) repealing two college regulations which are scheduled to take effect on July 1. A recent bundle of new regulations from the Department of Education includes rules requiring online and distance learning programs to be authorized by every state in which they operate, and establishing a federal definition for a college credit hour. The bill would repeal both of these regulations, which Committee Chair John Kline (R-MN) said constitutes “too much federal overreach into postsecondary education.” Supporters of the repeal measure said that the state authorization requirement would prevent colleges from offering online and distance courses in certain areas, and that a federal credit hour standard could discriminate against non-traditional learning programs. Committee Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA) argued that the Education Department’s new rules were necessary to ensure that federal student financial aid was being used wisely and protected against waste and abuse.


From the New England Council’s Weekly Washington Report Higher Education Update, June 20, 2011. NEBHE is a member of the Council and will publish this column each week.

Founded in 1925, the New England Council is a nonpartisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England formed to promote economic growth and a high quality of life in the New England region. The Council’s mission is to identify and support federal public policies and articulate the voice of its membership regionally and nationally on important issues facing New England. For more information, please visit www.newenglandcouncil.com.


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