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Senators pledge to work jointly on education

WASHINGTON D.C. – A bipartisan group of U.S. senators pledged Wednesday to work together to revamp the federal No Child Left Behind education law, a day after President Barack Obama called on lawmakers in his State of the Union address to speed up overhaul of the Bush-era policy.

Senate education committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he hopes to have a bill to Obama by the end of the summer.

The law has been credited with raising reading and math scores, but it has also tagged more than a third of U.S. schools as failing and created a hodgepodge of sometimes weak state academic standards.

Harkin and the Obama administration say the top priority is to move away from punishing schools that don’t meet federal benchmarks and instead focus on rewarding schools for progress. In a conference call with reporters, Republican and Democratic senators said they want to put partisan politics aside and fix problems with the 2002 law championed by President George W. Bush.

“We need to get away from Washington announcing whether schools are passing or failing,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee and former U.S. education secretary. “I don’t want to make it sound like it’s going to be a piece of cake or too easy, but we’re off to a good start.”

Other changes range from tossing out the term “highly qualified teacher,” which is based on certifications and college degrees rather than efficiency in the classroom, to giving rural schools a reprieve from rules that are designed for urban systems. The changes also include making the law less complex and easier to understand and consolidating federal education programs in hopes of saving overhead costs, lawmakers said.

They brushed off suggestions that the partisan atmosphere in Congress would slow the bill’s progress, particularly because of infighting among both parties.

“We’re always going to have intraparty little squabbles,” Harkin said. “I don’t believe we’ll be distracted by those.”

The White House released a blueprint for overhauling the law last March but it stalled amid election-year maneuvering. Now, the Obama administration faces a Republican-led House that could stand as a barrier to changing the law.

The senators said they’ve been working with House education committee Chairman John Kline, a Republican from Minnesota known as a vocal opponent of federal involvement in education. Kline’s spokesman Brian Newell said the chairman is “eager to begin an open process that invites members from both sides of the aisle and both the House and Senate to examine the federal role in our classrooms and what reforms are needed to fix what’s broken.”

Obama’s proposal calls for states to adopt standards that ensure students are ready for college or a career rather than grade-level proficiency – the focus of the current law.

Lawmakers also said they want to allow states to use subjects other than reading and mathematics as part of their measurements for meeting federal goals, pleasing many education groups that argued No Child Left Behind encouraged teachers not to focus on history, art, science, social studies and other important subjects.

Federal lawmakers on both sides have been meeting for months in hopes of paving the way for the bill’s passage this year. A first step may be dropping the No Child Left Behind name, which both parties agree is tainted by the problems – rather than the triumphs – of the law.