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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Federal education enforcers out of line

It's hard to find a defender anymore of the No Child Left Behind federal education law that passed with bipartisan support 13 years ago under President George W. Bush. The District of Columbia and 43 states, including Florida, have obtained waivers over the years to avoid fully implementing the flawed attempt at education reform. Yet now the U.S. Education Department threatens to require Florida to do just that unless the state revokes commonsense improvements to its school accountability system. That won't serve students or the state. Education Secretary Arne Duncan needs to reconsider.

Duncan's staff has put Florida on notice that the state is at risk of violating NCLB standards that require all children to be counted equally in accountability formulas. Earlier this year, with the support of educators and advocates, the Legislature agreed to give non-English-speaking students two years in a U.S. school before including their standardized test scores in school grading formulas. The change was an acknowledgement of the huge learning curve such children face and that schools should not be penalized if those students can't read, comprehend and write English at grade level within a year.

Yet to the federal bureaucrats enforcing the unpopular NCLB law, such common sense doesn't matter. They have given Florida a year to make changes or risk losing its NCLB waiver, which has allowed the state to substitute its own accountability efforts for some of the most unworkable federal mandates. Those include the idealistic but unreasonable federal standard for 2014 that each child at a school must be working at grade level for the school not to be deemed "failing."

Florida isn't the first state to recently run afoul of federal enforcers of NCLB, which Congress has refused to reform. Earlier this year, federal officials stripped Washington state of its waiver after lawmakers there failed to pass legislation tying teacher evaluations to the results of students' standardized test results. As a result, most of that state's schools had to notify students and their families by mail that they were "failing," when by more reasonable standards that wasn't the case.

This is where school accountability efforts get such a bad rap — when arbitrary or misplaced standards don't match up with the hard work of actually educating children. Florida has its own long history of that, including the Legislature's recent need to recalibrate an unfair teacher evaluation system that graded many teachers based on the test scores of students and subject matter they had never taught. But Florida lawmakers deserve credit for recognizing schools deserved more time with non-native English speakers before being held accountable for their performances on tests.

Ultimately, the continued flaws in NCLB are Congress' fault, because it has failed repeatedly to adopt reforms. But the last thing federal enforcers should be doing is punishing a state for embracing a commonsense reform. Education Secretary Duncan needs to find a better solution.