By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 – President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday included his promise to “replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.” As spelled out last year in the administration's Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Obama said that “we know what’s possible for our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan filled in the details Wednesday in two press conferences which highlighted bipartisan support for a thorough overhaul of the last ESEA revision, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) enacted by the last Bush administration. Senators Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., joined Duncan to support the administration's plan to replace NCLB's one-size-fits-all federal mandates with a far more flexible approach.

The proposed new flexibility specifically aims at helping the 80% of the U.S. which has just 20% of the school population – rural America. According to the administration's Blueprint, under the new approach “We will provide districts flexibility for designing interventions in schools that are not meeting their performance targets, giving rural communities the ability to decide what works best for their schools. The proposal eliminates federal mandates to provide supplemental educational services and public school choice – interventions that are difficult for many rural communities to provide.”

Duncan explained the plan also calls for recognizing that teachers in rural schools often may teach multiple subjects. He said under the new proposal, rather than being penalized for being “not highly qualified” in a specific subject, these multi-talented teachers would be praised for being “highly effective” overall. He said another rural-focused proposal is to overcome the trend of teachers serving a short time in rural areas before moving away by training rural residents to become teachers in their own communities.

Duncan pointed to one more change ahead for rural schools: far more use of broadband connections to connect rural students with more options such as a range of AP and college courses and to give excellent teachers the ability to reach students even in remote areas. He said the Department of Agriculture helped this effort significantly on Monday when it provided an additional $34.7 million for distance learning programs in 38 states.

Alexander, a former education secretary himself, said he favors the administration's new approach, commenting that he supports national standards “but I don’t think the federal government should set them.” Harkin, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said that by drawing on the committee's 10 education bill hearings held last year, he plans to mark up a comprehensive reauthorization bill this spring, for Senate floor consideration this summer. He indicated the bill might use a new name, replacing “No Child Left Behind” with perhaps “Every Child Counts.” Duncan said he hopes to have a range of reforms designed to help rural schools in place for the beginning of the new school year this fall.

Secretary Duncan concluded by saying he knows as a long-time educator himself that the best ideas “are always going to come from the local level.” He said what NCLB got wrong was that “It was very loose on goals, but very tight, very prescriptive on how you get there.” In contrast, he said “We want to be tight on goals, a high bar, for every single child, with college equivalent standards, we've seen great local leadership there. We want to be much looser on how you get there.” And at a time when Congress threatens to slash federal spending, he said that to make the administration's proposed changes, “For us to fix NCLB, that honestly doesn't cost a dime.”

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