By PHILIP ELLIOTT
WASHINGTON (AP) -- States can request permission to ignore parts of the No Child Left Behind education law through the spring of 2016, the Education Department said Thursday.
The long-term offer underscores the intensive work states have already undertaken on school reforms in exchange for flexibility from Washington, as well as a dour outlook that Congress will take action to replace the outdated goals of No Child Left Behind. The law expired in 2007 and included goals now seen as overly ambitious.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the sweeping law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is outdated and inhibits innovation and reform by school districts and states.
"The smartest way to fix that is through a reauthorized ESEA law, but Congress has not agreed on a responsible bill," Duncan said.
In the interim, Duncan's department is willing to let states ignore some of the most challenging pieces of the law if they promise to put improvement plans in place that focus on the worst-performing schools and on those with high numbers of at-risk students.
State school chiefs must also pledge to prepare students for college or careers, and they must collect and publish tomes of data on specific groups of students, such as those with disabilities and those learning English.
While most states have been freed from specific requirements of the 2002 law, the goal of improving schools remains, department officials said.
"We have to continuously remind ourselves that those school didn't get bad overnight, and it takes a lot of aggressive and courageous leadership to turn that around," said Deborah Delisle, the department's assistant secretary overseeing K-12 education.
Duncan's decision drew quick criticism from Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and a former education secretary.
"Secretary Duncan is doubling down on his national school board requirements on states seeking to renew waivers for the next school year," Alexander said. "He still has states over a barrel, so he's claiming even more detailed control over everything from when and how they evaluate their teachers to which schools they identify as low-performing, and he's forcing them to complete what looks like hundreds of extra pages of paperwork."
In 2011, the Education Department announced that states could petition Duncan for waivers from some of No Child Left Behind's most ambitious requirements, such as having all students read and do math at grade level by 2014. Schools that failed to reach that goal faced penalties, such as losing millions of federal dollars to help their most at-risk students.
Duncan had hoped the specter of waivers would compel Congress to update No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007 and has not been renewed or replaced.
The Republican-led House has passed a rewrite of the law that Duncan has criticized. A Democratic-run Senate education panel has finished its own version and has sent it to the full Senate for passage; no vote on the Senate bill has been scheduled.
"I look forward to a day when we can announce a new ESEA law that supports every state," Duncan said.
Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate education panel, said he would push for a vote this fall with his colleagues.
"As I have said before, waivers are no substitute for a comprehensive reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act," he said.
In the interim, a patchwork of state-by-state efforts has been put in place in 41 states and the District of Columbia, as well as in a collection of individual school districts in California. That has produced inconsistencies from state to state.
The department's letter to state school chiefs Thursday only covers the 34 states and the District of Columbia that were among the first to receive the waivers. Their waivers were set to expire this spring, and states were told they could petition the Education Department for another two years.
To receive an extension of those waivers, the states will have to convince the Education Department they are on track to fulfill earlier promises, target the most troubled schools and have heeded the department's previous warnings.
The department wants states to tell them by Dec. 15 whether they will be submitting applications, which often total hundreds of pages.
"We have to have folks clear their calendars," Delisle said.
States face a Feb. 21, 2014, deadline for their full applications.