NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut was freed Tuesday from the strictest mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind education law after enacting a sweeping public school overhaul that won strong praise from the nation's top education official.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan met with Gov. Dannel Malloy and other state officials in Hartford on Tuesday. Duncan announced that Connecticut was granted a waiver, which gives the state more flexibility to spend federal money and avoids having to declare nearly half of the state's public schools as failing.
He also announced waivers for seven other states.
Duncan told a crowd of elected officials, teachers, union representatives and others at the Capitol that the waiver was tied directly to legislation that overhauls the state's education system with a primary goal of seeking to improve underperforming schools and districts. The legislation includes "meaningful evaluation" of teachers and administrators, a commitment to closing the achievement gap between wealthy and poor schools and improvements in school finance, he said.
"I don't think I would have been here without that legislation," he said.
Malloy, alluding to a previous rejection for a federal education grant, said Connecticut has proven it's capable of making major changes in education with the legislation that passed the General Assembly with bipartisan support.
"I think today signaled a change in our application, a change in our ability to compete with other states, a change which marks our dedication to doing in our state that which we know will work," he said.
The legislation creates a new Commissioner's Network, allowing Connecticut to "provide intensive supports and interventions" needed to turn around 25 low-performing schools. It allows each school to create a new committee of teachers, parents and administrators to come up with plans to turn around their schools. Those will be considered by the state education commissioner.
The commissioner can develop or modify those plans. If he disagrees with the committee's proposal a third-party referee will intercede. Referees are to be chosen from a list established by the state Department of Education.
Teachers unions had complained that Malloy's original bill did not provide them with enough input into fixing their schools and it decimated collective bargaining rights.
The bill also requires annual performance evaluations for teachers and administrators and links tenure to a teacher's effectiveness. There are also 1,000 new early childhood education slots in low-income communities; additional funding for agricultural science high schools, magnet, vocational-technical, and struggling schools; and two new charter schools focused on English language learners.
President Barack Obama's administration is granting waivers in exchange for promises from states to improve how they prepare and evaluate students. In all, 19 states have been given waivers so far.
The waivers are a stopgap measure until Congress rewrites the law, which has been up for renewal since 2007. Federal lawmakers agree the law needs to be changed, but they've bickered over how to do that.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who attended Tuesday's event, said in an interview that the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-run House of Representatives are locked in a dispute over changing the law. He said he's not optimistic the two sides will reach agreement on No Child Left Behind as Congress grapples with numerous other priorities.
"It's pretty grim what could be done," he said.
President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law in 2002 to hold schools accountable for the performance of all students. Despite initial bipartisan support, the act quickly became unpopular as educators argued that many schools couldn't realistically meet the requirements and that it unfairly stigmatized some schools as failures.
Duncan criticized it as punitive and for imposing a top-down approach from Washington.
"We think No Child Left Behind is largely broken now," he said.
The law calls for sanctions on schools that do not achieve 100 percent student proficiency on standard assessments by 2014. Connecticut's waiver establishes a more comprehensive system of measuring student academic achievement and progress across all performance levels, the Malloy administration said.
The waiver also adds writing and science assessments to the accountability system and holds high schools accountable for graduation rates in addition to test scores.
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