President Obama took his first step on Friday altering the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, a signature domestic-policy achievement of his predecessor, George W. Bush. The law required schools, for the first time, to report on and meet achievement standards for all students. Obama now is offering waivers to states of some of the more onerous standards in exchange for other school-reform efforts, particularly for the lowest performing schools.
The move is a substantive rebuke to Congress for failing to work on national policies. On education, no one disagrees that the standards under No Child Left Behind need tweaking, but lawmakers have been unable to reach a consensus on even the most basic of updates. "Congress has not been able to fix these flaws so far. I’ve urged Congress for a while now, 'Let’s get a bipartisan effort. Let's fix this.' Congress hasn’t been able to do it, so I will," Obama said at a White House event.
As early as January, states could be free from outdated student-achievement requirements if they can demonstrate that they are aggressively intervening in low-performing schools and using college- and career-oriented curricula. Under the new rule from the Education Department, states could apply for the waivers as early as November and potentially be approved by the beginning of the year, according to administration officials. States that need more time to prepare their applications can apply in January.
In practical terms, the waivers represent the biggest changes to the national K-12 education requirements in 10 years. They remove a key benchmark that the law's supporters insisted was necessary to hold schools' feet the the fire. The White House says the current law’s benchmarks need to be changed because as many as 80 percent of public schools could be labeled as failing next year. Schools will still be required to collect data on all types of students--minority groups, economically disadvantaged students, and those with special education needs.
The rule cedes much of the decision-making on achievement standards to the states, catering to complaints from many Republicans that Obama's education policies are too centralized. "What works in Rhode Island may not be the same thing that works in Tennessee," Obama said. "This does not mean that states will be able to lower their standards or escape accountability."
What happens next depends in part on political zeitgeist: Some conservatives would like to see national standards dismantled in favor of state and local control of schools. If Republican policies gain favor in Congress, legislators could nudge the law in that direction while states are getting the achievement benchmarks waived. Meanwhile, policymakers who helped create No Child Left Behind will be watching closely to see whether the waiver rule advances the intent of the law without giving up its original goal of highlighting improvement for all students, including those who are disadvantaged.
The waiver rule “recognizes the changes in the educational environment that need to be made if, in fact, schools are going to start to make more promising advancements on the [achievement] gap,” said House Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member George Miller, D-Calif., who was a key player in writing the law. “No Child Left Behind, when we did that, we didn’t have the ability to speak to standards, we didn’t have the ability to speak to assessments.... We need to move beyond that.”
Republicans aren’t pleased with the move, which they see as an encroachment on congressional power. “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,” said House Education Chairman John Kline, R-Minn. “While I appreciate some of the policies outlined in the secretary’s waivers plan, I simply cannot support a process that grants the secretary of Education sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers.”
“The truth is the secretary has the states over a barrel. Most governors want a waiver. Almost every state, they’ll be asking for a waiver,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has introduced a Republican education package that would remove most of the national standards and leave them to the states. The waivers “run the risk of 100,000 schools being supervised by a national school board,” he said.
To get a waiver, states must do three things. First, they must adopt college- and career-ready standards that will ensure that high school graduates don’t need remedial courses to get into college or to start job training. Second, states must identify the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools as well as rigorous interventions to turn them around; they also must identify an additional 10 percent of “focus schools” that have low graduation rates or large achievement gaps to focus on the students with the greatest need. Third, they must set basic guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation and support systems.