Obama announces waiver plan for states on No Child Left Behind requirements

President Obama on Friday announced that states could apply for waivers on the provision of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that requires school proficiency in math and reading by 2014, a step that quickly drew GOP criticism.

“Today our kids trail too many other countries in math, in science, in reading,” Obama said at the White House. “If we’re serious about building an economy that lasts, an economy in which hard work pays off with the opportunity for solid middle-class jobs, we’ve got to get serious about education.”

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In order for the states to receive a waiver, the administration is requiring they adopt education policy changes the administration deems necessary.

“In its implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping,” Obama said. “If states want more flexibility, they’re going to need to set higher standards.”

The requirements ruffled the feathers of Republican members of Congress, who were quick to criticize the announcement because they feel the administration is exercising too much power on education.

“I am extremely disappointed after spending so many hours working toward a solution that we have reached a point where the president appears to preempt our efforts with waivers. The best way to address these important issues is through legislation,” said Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

“President Obama’s efforts represent a fundamental and dramatic shift in authority from Congress to the administration,” he said. “This action today clearly politicizes education policy, which traditionally has been a bipartisan issue that attracts support from both parties. It is the responsibility of Congress to develop policy, and the president’s proposal is an attempt to effect change outside the legislative process.”

Congress has been working on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) for the last four years. The House Education and the Workforce Committee has passed three of its five bill that would reauthorize ESEA.

House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said Obama’s actions could damage the progress Congress has made on ESEA reauthorization.

“I simply cannot support a process that grants the secretary of Education sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers,” Kline said. “This sets a dangerous precedent, and every single American should be extremely wary. Make no mistake — this is a political move that could have a damaging impact on Congressional efforts to enact lasting reforms to current elementary and secondary education law.”

Because Congress hasn’t passed a new education act, the administration had to issue states waivers so that schools that haven't shown proficiency aren’t deemed as failing and continue to receive federal education funds.

“Despite the good intentions of some, Congress has not been able to pass this law,” Obama said. “Congress hasn’t been able to do it, so I will.”

Without the waivers, failing schools face significant penalties, including staff firings, principal replacements, school closures or replacing the school with a charter.

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But, as Enzi noted, waivers have been given to states historically to provide relief from federal regulations. He said Obama’s proposal would fundamentally change that process by requiring a new set of accountability requirements for states applying for waivers.

For a state to be granted a waiver, it must meet three requirements: establish college and career readiness standards, create an accountability system that reports the lowest performing 5 percent of schools and the 10 percent with the largest achievement gaps, and develop teacher and principal evaluations that include student performance.

Obama had the support of congressional Democrats. House Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) and Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) appeared at the White House event in support of the new measures.

“President Obama has presented states, schools, parents, students and teachers a tremendous opportunity to bring their schools into the 21st century,” Miller said. “The administration has provided an avenue for real reform and real change in schools. Schools and states should no longer be held back by the restricted, outdated burden of No Child Left Behind. It’s a law that is 10 years old and is simply not providing the support to help bring our schools to the future.”