No Child Left Behind: 10 States Receive Waivers, Raising Debate on Education Policy

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President
President Obama has begun exempting states from the restrictions of No Child Left Behind, citing Congress' failure to reform the law. Source: Reuters

President Barack Obama announced Thursday that 10 states have been exempted from certain requirements of the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, allowing them the freedom to determine their own methods for raising education standards.

Enacted in 2002 under the Bush administration, No Child Left Behind was a bipartisan effort that aimed to increase accountability in schools through an emphasis on standardized testing. The law has since come to be viewed as largely ineffective, promoting a culture of teaching to the test, rather than improving the quality of education.

After waiting far too long for Congress to reform No Child Left Behind, my administration is giving states the opportunity to set higher, more honest standards in exchange for more flexibility,  said Obama in a White House statement.

The exempted states are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. New Mexico applied for a waiver and was denied, but is expected to reapply with a new proposal.

Today, we're giving 10 states the green light to continue making reforms that are best for them, said the president. Because if we're serious about helping our children reach their potential, the best ideas aren't going to come from Washington alone.  Our job is to harness those ideas, and to hold states and schools accountable for making them work.

Twenty-eight other states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have expressed intent to seek waivers in the next round of considerations, beginning later this month.

The president's use of executive power to circumvent congressional reform of the law has drawn some criticism from conservatives.

President Obama has mistaken bipartisan dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind for a mandate to unilaterally rewrite federal education law, wrote Lindsey M. Burke, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, in an opinion article for Fox News.

Burke, while agreeing that the law needs to be reformed, goes on to claim that the waivers issued by the Education Department will force states to submit to a new set of standards determined by the Obama administration.

When national organizations and the Department of Education dictate standards and tests, they effectively control what can -- and can't -- be taught in local schools, wrote Burke.

Grover Whitehirst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a self-proclaimed non-partisan think tank, and former official in the Education Department under the Bush administration, also expressed disapproval over the president's waivers.

I think it was a serious mistake, said Whitehirst. It removes accountability and returns power to the very same states that were performing poorly in the first place. At the same time, it requires states to make a new set of promises.

Whitehirst said he favored neither No Child Left Behind nor Obama's state-based proposals, but rather a market-based approach. This model has been typified in charter schools, which accept funding from both the public and private sectors, but are exempt from standards applied to other public schools, instead aiming for their own standards set forth in a charter.

According to Whitehirst, this allows parents to choose where their children go to school based on their performance, and places accountability at the level of the school rather than at the state or federal level.

This model has been shown to produce uneven standards and results, with some schools achieving high performance and others not.

There is no consensus about whether, on average, charter schools are doing better or worse than conventional public schools at promoting the achievement of their students, reads a January 2012 report from Mathematica Policy Research and the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Nonetheless, one research finding is clear: Effects vary widely among different charter schools.

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