Obama To Waive Parts Of Bush-Era Education Act

The White House is announcing Friday that it will grant waivers to states that cannot meet the testing standards of the No Child Left Behind education law. But states will face strict scrutiny from Washington before they get these waivers.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

OK. The White House says it will grant waivers to states that cannot meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind education law. States have been demanding more freedom from the law's sanctions as more and more schools fall out of compliance. (Technical difficulties) White House, the president praised the No Child Left Behind law as an accomplishment of President Bush, but said Congress had failed to revise it and so he had to do something.

BARACK OBAMA: Our kids only get one shot at a decent education. They cannot afford to wait any longer. So given that Congress cannot act, I am acting.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Starting today...

INSKEEP: So states will have new flexibility, but will still face strict scrutiny from Washington. NPR's Larry Abramson reports that some lawmakers are worried about that.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The new waiver rules will free states from a requirement that was both revolutionary and, as it turned out, unattainable, getting all kids proficient in reading and math by 2014. The vast majority of schools were set to fall short of that goal. Now the Education Department says states just have to have ambitious but achievable targets for improving student achievement. Tom Luna, a superintendent of public instruction for Idaho, says this is what his state needs.

TOM LUNA: This is a symbolic first step in turning education responsibility back to the states and away from the federal government.

ABRAMSON: Luna has been a leader of a revolt that bubbled up in the states. Educators saw ambitious schools being labeled as failing because they fell just short of the 2014 goal. The new waivers will allow states to avoid that stigma, as long as they focus their efforts on turning around the lowest performing schools. States will also get new flexibility in spending federal money. Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust says this is a sign that the federal government is ready to hand over control of education reform and say...

AMY WILKINS: This is what we expect and leave states room to decide how to get all kids ready for college, how to close gaps, and how to build strong teacher evaluation systems.

ABRAMSON: The administration had been hoping for a complete rewrite of No Child Left Behind to acknowledge all the changes that have happened in the last decade. But with no sign of congressional action, the waiver plan moved forward. In fact, some groups may be better off with the waiver plan than with some of the proposals in Congress. Just days ago, Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson said he would introduce legislation to relax requirements which say nearly all disabled kids must take the same standardized tests as everyone else.

JOHNNY ISAKSON: The parent, the teacher and school will determine what the assessment vehicle that best measures the assessment of that child will be; not a single one-size-fits-all paper and pencil test.

ABRAMSON: Laura Kaloi of the National Center for Learning Disabilities says that idea would reverse the progress that these children have made under the law.

LAURA KALOI: They were not included in state assessments prior to No Child Left Behind and they were not taught to state standards with the other kids.

ABRAMSON: Administration officials say the waivers will still require that learning disabled kids make meaningful progress along with other groups, such as minorities and low-income students. Now the states will have to apply for these waivers. All states are eligible but there is concern that the Education Department might impose too many conditions. Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander urged the department not to use a heavy hand.

LAMAR ALEXANDER: The restraint I'm asking for is that the secretary not use this occasion to become a national school board and begin to impose on the states requirements that Congress would not do and that states ought to be deciding for themselves.

ABRAMSON: States have until the end of the year to apply for waivers to No Child Left Behind. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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