Frustrated by what he called a "slow motion train wreck" for U.S. schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he will give schools relief from federal mandates under the No Child Left Behind law if Congress drags its feet on the law's long-awaited overhaul and reauthorization.
That could mean everything from granting waivers on test score requirements to flexibility on how schools spend federal funding, though Duncan offered few details because he said the department is just beginning to work on its plan.
The Obama administration has called for an overhaul of the 9-year-old federal education law by the fall, but lawmakers have indicated that won't be possible. Duncan told reporters Friday that his first goal is for Congress to rewrite the law but he wants to put other plans in place in case that doesn't happen this year.
"This is absolutely plan B," Duncan said. "The prospect of doing nothing is what I'm fighting against."
Duncan has warned that 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled failures next year if No Child Left Behind isn't changed. Education experts have questioned that estimate.
Still, no one thinks states will meet the law's goal of having 100 percent of students proficient in math and reading by 2014. A school that fails to meet targets for several consecutive years faces sanctions that can include firing teachers or closing the school entirely.
And Duncan hasn't been shy about granting waivers. In 2009, he granted more than 300, significantly higher than the number given out a year earlier by his predecessor.
Federal lawmakers — even Democrats — aren't thrilled about Duncan's new plan after months of closed-door, bipartisan meetings hashing out changes to the law, which is four years overdue for reauthorization.
"It seems premature at this point to take steps outside the legislative process that would address NCLB's problems in a temporary and piecemeal way," said Senate education committee Chairman Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa.
House education committee Chairman John Kline, a Republican from Minnesota, said he's slowed down the reauthorization process because Democrats on his committee "have really started to engage."
Kline plans to introduce a bill that would give local school districts more flexibility in how they spend federal money. For example, he would like to allow them to move money for teacher training to underfunded special education programs.
Republicans and Democrats agree the law is broken. The Bush-era legislation has led to schools being labeled failures even though they are making improvements, and has discouraged states from adopting higher standards.
Duncan said he's encouraged by talks with federal lawmakers in recent weeks indicating the law might see revisions this year. But he said he wants a backup plan in case that doesn't happen.
"We can't afford to do nothing," he said.
Duncan said the department is talking to state officials, teachers, principals and parents about how to help schools if the law isn't rewritten. He said any actions taken by the department would not prevent Congress from continuing to negotiate reauthorization.
The news comes as relief for governors, who say their schools should not be punished because of an outdated law. In Georgia, for example, the state Department of Education is creating a "performance index" that measures growth in academic achievement rather than just year-to-year test scores and looks at more subjects than just reading and math, the only two required under the federal law.
"I would like the flexibility to use this performance index as it focuses on what makes a school successful and academic growth in each area," said Gov. Nathan Deal.
But some observers say Duncan's plan might backfire with Congress because waivers aren't popular with lawmakers who want more accountability for schools.
"I don't get all the drama. It almost has the feel of a threat to Congress," said Sandy Kress, who served as an education adviser to President George W. Bush in the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. "One has to worry that what they're really saying is, 'We're going to open up the candy store and let people in and they can have as much as they like.'"
Associated Press writer Chris Williams in Minneapolis, Minn., contributed to this report.
Dorie Turner can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/dorieturner.