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Washington • President Barack Obama on Thursday declared that 10 states are free from the No Child Left Behind law, allowing them to scrap some of the most rigorous and unpopular mandates in American education. In exchange, the states are promising higher standards and more creative ways to measure what students are learning.
"We can combine greater freedom with greater accountability," Obama said from the White House. Plenty more states are bound to take him up on the offer.
The first 10 states to be declared free from the landmark education law are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee. The only state that applied for the flexibility and did not get it, New Mexico, is working with the administration to get approval.
Utah and 27 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have signaled that they, too, plan to flee the law in favor of their own plans.
Yet the move is a tacit acknowledgement that the law's main goal, getting all students up to speed in reading and math by 2014, is not within reach.
The states excused from following the law no longer have to meet that deadline. Instead, they had to put forward plans showing they will prepare children for college and careers, set new targets for improving achievement among all students, reward the best performing schools and focus help on the ones doing the worst.
Obama said he was acting because Congress had failed to update the law despite widespread agreement it needs to be fixed.
"We've offered every state the same deal," Obama said. "If you're willing to set higher, more honest standards than the one ones that were set by No Child Left Behind, then we're going to give you the flexibility to meet those standards."
Republicans have charged that by granting waivers, Obama was overreaching his authority.
The executive action by Obama is one of his most prominent in an ongoing campaign to act on his own where Congress is rebuffing him.
Obama called President George W. Bush's most hyped domestic accomplishment an admirable but flawed effort that hurt students instead of helping them.
No Child Left Behind was primarily designed to help the nation's poor and minority children and was passed a decade ago with widespread bipartisan support. It has been up for renewal since 2007. But lawmakers have been stymied for years by competing priorities, disagreements over how much of a federal role there should be in schools and, in the recent Congress, partisan gridlock.
For all the cheers that states may have about Obama's action, the move also reflects the sobering reality that the United States is not close to the law's original goal: getting children to grade level in reading and math.
Critics today say the 2014 deadline was unrealistic, the law is too rigid and led to teaching to the test, and too many schools feel they are unfairly labeled as "failures." Under No Child Left Behind, schools that don't meet requirements for two years or longer face increasingly tough consequences, including busing children to higher-performing schools, offering tutoring and replacing staff.
As the deadline approaches, more schools are failing to meet requirements under the law, with nearly half not doing so last year, according to the Center on Education Policy. Center officials said that's because some states today have harder tests or have high numbers of immigrant and low-income children, but it's also because the law requires states to raise the bar each year for how many children must pass the test.
In states granted a waiver, students will still be tested annually. But starting this fall, low-performing schools in those states will no longer face the same prescriptive actions spelled out under No Child Left Behind, but instead will face a variety of interventions determined by the individual states. A school's performance will also probably be labeled differently.
In Oklahoma, State School Superintendent Janet Barresi said Thursday that teachers in Oklahoma schools will be able to focus more on the growth of individual children.
"In order to be successful under the old system, you focused on getting the students to just pass the tests so the school would show improvement to get their AYP status," Barresi said. AYP, or adequate yearly progress, is a crucial measurement under No Child Left Behind.
The pressure will probably still be on the lowest-performing schools in states granted a waiver, but mediocre schools that aren't failing will probably see the most changes because they will feel less pressure and have more flexibility in how they spend federal dollars, said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.
While the president's action marks a change in education policy in America, the reach is limited. The populous states of Pennsylvania, Texas and California are among those that have not said they will seek a waiver, although they could still do so later.
On Tuesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said states without a waiver will be held to the standards of No Child Left Behind because "it's the law of the land."
Some conservatives viewed Obama's plan not as giving more flexibility to states, but as imposing his vision on them. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said Thursday that, "This notion that Congress is sort of an impediment to be bypassed, I find very, very troubling in many, many ways."
Duncan maintained this week that the administration "desperately" wants Congress to fix the law.
In an election year in a divided Congress, that appears unlikely.
Education Department flexibility: http://www.ed.gov/esea/flexibility