Chris Williams, Associated Press
Minneapolis, Minn. -- The chairman of the House education committee questioned on Thursday the legality of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's plan to grant waivers to the No Child Left Behind law in exchange for states embracing the department's ideas on education reform.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., released a letter to Duncan in which he asked the secretary to explain by July 1 how the department has the authority to grant waivers "in exchange for reforms not authorized by Congress." It was also signed by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the education subcommittee.
Kline has been critical of the plan since it was announced two weeks ago, arguing that it would result in more regulations on schools while causing confusion and undermining long-term reform efforts under debate in Congress.
In a conference call with reporters, Kline said Thursday that Duncan was overstepping his authority. "I honestly believe that Arne Duncan wants our schools to work, wants our kids to get a good education and wants us to be competitive around the world," he said, "but he's not the nation's superintendent."
When he announced the plan, Duncan said he was frustrated by the pace of the education overhaul efforts in Congress, calling it a "slow-motion train wreck" for U.S. schools. Duncan had asked that the overhaul bills be finished by the time schools resume in the fall, but Kline said that was unrealistic.
Duncan said he would offer regulatory "relief in exchange for reform" during a conference call with reporters June 10. Those reforms would be similar to those encouraged in the $4 billion Race to the Top grant competition, which include performance pay for teachers and growth in charter schools, he said.
He didn't give details about his plan and none have been forthcoming since his announcement.
Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for Duncan, said Thursday the best solution for the problems with the No Child Left Behind bill would be for Congress to pass a bipartisan bill by this fall, but that might not happen.
"As a plan B, we'll be prepared to use the authority Congress has given us to grant relief in exchange for reforms that boost student achievement," he said. "This will give both states the flexibility they need and Congress the time it requires to complete work on a new bill."
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate education committee, has said he hopes to have a comprehensive bill finished this summer, before Duncan's fall deadline.
Duncan has predicted that 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled as failures next year under the law, which makes a goal of having all students proficient their grade level in math and reading by 2014. Schools that repeatedly miss their targets toward that benchmark face federal sanctions.
There's bipartisan agreement that significant changes need to be made to the nine-year-old No Child Left Behind law, which has been criticized for stigmatizing schools even as they make improvements and discouraging states from adopting higher academic standards.
Kline repeated Thursday that the House education committee was moving forward with a series of targeted bills. A bill to eliminate more than 40 education programs and another bill to encourage charter schools have already been introduced.
He said bills to grant schools more flexibility in spending federal money, defining teacher effectiveness and holding schools accountable will be finished in the next few months. Kline said he was pushing the bills forward as quickly as possible.
"I cannot make it go faster," he said.
Associated Press writer Dorie Turner in Atlanta contributed to this report.