President Barack Obama announced Friday that states can obtain waivers that would exempt their schools from a key provision of No Child Left Behind, a sweeping education law enacted under the George W. Bush administration.
By offering states an avenue for opting out of the law, Obama bypassed Congress and followed through on promises to provide states with direct relief if lawmakers did not reform No Child Left Behind. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has warned for months that the move was imminent, describing how the law as currently written would lead to a slow-motion educational trainwreck.
Duncan was referring to a provision in the law mandating that 100 percent of students become proficient in math and reading by 2014, a measure that reflects No Child Left Behind's emphasis on rising targets for how well students score on standardized tests. Schools that fail to meet that standard would be labeled as failing and risk sanctions that could include principals and teachers losing their jobs or schools being shut down. Duncan had said that the 100 percent proficiency requirement could lead to 80 percent of schools being labeled failures, a figure that some experts have disputed.
Speaking at the White House's East Wing on Friday, Obama praised No Child Left Behind's focus on accountability but said that in its implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that were hurting instead of helping, including an obsessive focus on testing that forced educators to teach to the test and crowded out subjects like history.
I've urged Congress for a while now: let's get a bipartisan effort lets fix this, Obama said. Congress hasn't been able to do it, so I will.
Obama offered few specifics, saying only that states would have flexibility to come up with innovations -- what works in Rhode Island may not be the same thing that works in Tennessee -- and noting that 44 different states had so far applied.
Waivers Link to Education Reforms
But Duncan has signaled that eligibility for the waivers would be tethered to education reforms similar to those states have pursued as they vie for billions in federal education grants under the administration's Race to the Top program. Those measures included increasing school choice by allowing more charter schools and establishing methods for gauging teacher effectiveness. In his speech, Obama suggested that those goals remain a priority by saying he urged Congress to use Race to the Top as a blueprint when reforming No Child Left Behind.
The effort has faced resistance from lawmakers in Congress who charge that Duncan is exceeding his authority (the law allows the education secretary to waive any statutory or regulatory requirement but says nothing about attaching conditions). Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, criticized granting Duncan the sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers and criticized using the waivers as a tool to advance the Obama administration's education agenda.
Duncan is using the simple power to grant waivers and expanding it to say, 'I will grant you waivers in exchange for changing public school policies to something that I would like,' Kline said. And there's a growing sense that he really doesn't have the authority to do this.
Still, most governors have embraced the law -- even if they are skeptical of the preconditions for waivers, they are eager for the relief.
I support the idea of waivers, because we think the way to assess a school is not solely through testing and proficiency, said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who on other issues has been an antagonist of the Obama administration. Overall, the reforms [Duncan] is looking at are really similar to what I'm looking at. What he's saying makes sense. We would be moving toward these changes even if the waivers came without conditions.