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Will States Accept Duncan-Style Reforms for NCLB Relief?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan made news over the weekend when he announced he was getting ready to offer states relief from the No Child Left Behind law.

Before his conference call with reporters, Duncan wouldn't even entertain questions about waivers—saying his only priority was reauthorizing the law.

Now, in a big shift that most knew was coming, he's talking about granting "regulatory" flexibility. But he offered so few details about what that relief would look like, that the reporters spent much of the call flummoxed over what the news actually was.

Reporters went back and forth with Duncan several times trying to nail him down on details:

Are you looking at waivers, or changing regulations, or some other mechanism for relief, I asked.

Top aide Carmel Martin replied they were "exploring options."

Is the main target the 100 percent AYP goal?

Duncan replied: "We're going to look at everything."

Gee, thanks.

At one point, Dorie Turner of the Associated Press brilliantly pointed out that the passcode on the conference call was "waivers," so perhaps that's a cornerstone of the plan?

Here's Duncan explaining his plan, in his own words.

It's clear Duncan plans to tie Race to the Top-style reforms (think teacher evaluations tied to test scores) to any new flexibility. But how will he keep accountability in place, at least temporarily, especially if he decides to allow states to freeze their yearly targets toward that 100 percent proficiency goal? Will this relief take the spotlight off subgroups? There are so many unanswered questions.

With ESEA stalled and the $100 billion in economic-stimulus aid all handed out, Duncan had little leverage left to advance his education reform agenda in states. So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that he wants to use his executive authority to "incentivize" (a Duncanism) states to embrace the Obama administration's education priorities, such as expanding charter schools, and changing how teachers are evaluated.

So we don't need a lot details to know that anything Duncan comes up with will be met with criticism from some. It's already started.

Some states will jump at the chance for any regulatory relief as the 100 percent proficiency 2014 deadline approaches, even if it comes with more strings from Washington. But some states might find the interventions under NCLB—from providing tutoring to restructuring schools—not so bad given the alternative.

So, for some states, it may come down to which is worse: Accepting Duncan/Obama-style reforms, or sticking with the penalties that already exist under NCLB?

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