No Child Left Behind loses bite as Obama issues waivers

Many educators applaud the waivers from some parts of No Child Left Behind, saying the education-reform law has a one-size-fits-all approach. Others worry that minorities could suffer. 

Jason Reed/Reuters/File
President Obama makes remarks last year on the need to provide states with relief from key provisions of the No Child Left Behind education policy. His administration began offering waivers from the education-reform law Thursday.

For 10 states, the chance to get No Child Left Behind off their backs has finally arrived, with President Obama announcing long-awaited waivers from some aspects of the federal education law Thursday.

The George W. Bush-era bipartisan law has widely been credited with bringing to light achievement gaps in which racial minority, low-income, disabled, and non-native English speaking students have been the most left behind. But it’s also been widely criticized for a one-size-fits all approach to accountability, with many states saying it’s an albatross.

“With the waivers, Obama has changed the landscape of accountability under No Child Left behind,” says Diane Stark Rentner, interim director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington.

The states that have so far received waivers through the US Department of Education are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

They will now have flexibility to target resources on the lowest-performing schools. They will still be expected to test and report achievement data, but will no longer have to require all schools to improve at a certain rate to reach 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014, as NCLB required.

That deadline “was a wonderful goal but really impossible to attain with an education system that is structured the way it is,” says Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “We’ve had so much reform momentum throughout the country over the last five or six years that it’s really important to adapt the law to … the willingness of states and districts to take on new ways of doing things.”

New Mexico has also applied for a waiver and is in discussions with the US Department of Education, and 28 other states have said they intend to apply for a second round of waivers later this month.

In exchange for flexibility, the states have to set standards to prepare students for college and careers and create plans to improve the effectiveness of teachers and principals.

In addition, their accountability systems must reward schools with high performance or significant gains in closing achievement gaps. By contrast, NCLB’s requirements were largely seen as punitive.

The waivers couldn’t have happened without the backdrop of the Common Core State Standards, which 45 states have voluntarily adopted, Ms. Rentner says. Partly through incentives from the federal government, such as the Education Department's Race to the Top grants, states have been agreeing to these more-rigorous standards designed to keep students globally competitive in the 21st century. This will make it easier to compare student performance across states, Rentner says.

“If we’re serious about helping our children reach their potential, the best ideas aren’t going to come from Washington alone,” Obama is expected to say Thursday, according to a White House press release. “Our job is to harness those ideas, and to hold states and schools accountable for making them work.”

Some concerns have been raised – particularly by civil rights groups -- about how the waivers will play out in practice, and whether the states will truly be held accountable for the performance of some of the most disadvantaged students.

Another critique, from conservative observers and some Republican lawmakers, is that the Obama administration is overstepping its bounds by starting to dismantle NCLB through the waiver process.

“NCLB, for all its flaws, was crafted by the US Congress … [but] these waivers impose a a raft of new federal requirements that were never endorsed by the legislative branch,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. “Once this administration opens this door, it’s hard to imagine future administrations not building on this precedent.”

The chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Rep. John Kline (R) of Minnesota, said Thursday morning at an AEI event, “This notion that Congress is sort of an impediment to be bypassed, I find very, very troubling in many, many ways.”

Congressman Kline also introduced on Thursday two Republican-written education bills designed to give more flexibility to states and school districts. Some Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the education committee, have said Kline’s approach is a troubling departure from bipartisan attempts in recent years to rewrite the education law.

Many observers say that this year it’s unlikely Congress will be able to agree on a such a rewrite – already 5 years overdue.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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