Administrators of failing public schools can rejoice. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has come up with a plan that could postpone their final exams -- and save them from flunking out of their jobs.
Spellings announced a new program last week that will relieve public school systems in up to 10 states from current accountability standards under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The new program makes it less likely students will be able to exercise the law's already-narrow school-choice provision that allows those in certifiably bad public schools to flee for the sanctuary of less bad public schools.
The massive investment taxpayers have made in President Bush's NCLB is looking more and more like a dead loss.
When Bush ran for president in 2000, he proposed increasing federal funding for local public schools -- a dramatic departure from the Republican platform of 1996, which called for abolishing the Department of Education. At the same time, however, Bush called for giving vouchers to students in persistently failing public schools so they could attend private or religious schools, instead.
This was supposed to be a payoff for conservatives if they acquiesced in increasing the size and power of a federal agency not authorized by the Constitution.
As soon as Bush was elected, he began backtracking on school choice. The day after he was inaugurated, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card said, "Vouchers won't be a top priority of this administration." NCLB, which Bush signed a year later, did not give students in failing public schools vouchers to attend private schools.
But it did allow students in failing public schools to transfer to other public schools in the same school district.
The system was supposed to work as follows: Each state would develop annual tests to check third- through eighth-graders for grade-level "proficiency" in math and reading. The states themselves would determine what "proficiency" meant. But each would be responsible for ensuring that 100 percent of its public-school students achieved "proficiency" in both subjects by 2014.
To get there, each state was required to set a schedule of "adequate yearly progress" for its schools. In California, for example, only 13.6 percent of a school's students needed to test "proficient" in reading last year for the school to show "adequate yearly progress." But this year, 24.4 percent needed to test "proficient."