Obama Announces No Child Left Behind State Waivers

President Obama announced on Friday just what school districts have to do to qualify for waivers from the No Child Left Behind law. States had been pressuring the Department of Education to do something, because, without congressional action, a huge number of school districts would have been labeled as failing under the law.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

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Today, President Obama announced major changes in the rules for the education law, No Child Left Behind. States can now apply for waivers that allow them to escape some federal sanctions.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, states have been pushing for more control over education reform.

LARRY ABRAMSON: President Obama surrounded himself with school children, educators and sympathetic governors at the White House to announce the plan. The president said he has to act because Congress has not been able to reauthorize this law. He said he has heard the call for more state control.

BARACK OBAMA: We're going to let states, schools and teachers come up with innovative ways to give our children the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future.

ABRAMSON: States that apply for and receive waivers no longer have to label schools as failing if they fall short of achievement goals. Instead, states can come up with their own plans to boost performance. They also no longer have to set aside a certain amount of federal money to deal with low performing schools.

The president anticipated possible criticism that he was letting states off the hook.

OBAMA: In fact, the way we've structured this, if states want more flexibility, they're going to have to set higher standards, more honest standards that prove they're serious about meeting them.

ABRAMSON: Education officials were clearly relieved and many said they would apply right away. Getting waivers won't be easy. States must show that they have ways to measure student growth and get students ready for college or a career. They also have to be developing comprehensive teacher evaluations that include the use of standardized test scores.

Randy Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, fears this will lead to an over-reliance on tests and teacher evaluations.

RANDY WEINGARTEN: We know that limiting it to test scores is not reliable, doesn't work and, worse, it's not what the countries that out-compete us do.

ABRAMSON: Democrats in Congress welcome the plan, but Republicans attack what they saw as a unilateral decision to amend a law that only Congress has the authority to change. Minnesota Republican John Kline heads the House Education Committee and has long questioned the Education Department's authority to take this step.

JOHN KLINE: When he grants waivers, it removes some of the impetus to allow us in Congress to keep moving on rewriting the law.

ABRAMSON: And many, like Reggie Felton of the National School Boards Association, say this is just a stopgap. He still wants Congress to undertake a comprehensive renovation of this 10-year-old law.

REGGIE FELTON: There are too many flaws in the system that have not been addressed and there are still many questions remaining in how even this relief would be implemented.

ABRAMSON: States must show that they are eligible for relief for each provision of the law. Gene Wilhoit of the Council of Chief State School Officers says many states are not ready to do that and many, he says, will not even try because they figure Congress will simply re-jigger the system once again in a year or two.

GENE WILHOIT: What we will have is a group of states who, if successful in getting a waiver, will be operating under this system and another group of states who will be operating under No Child Left Behind.

ABRAMSON: And so schools now enter the waiver period of the No Child Left Behind era. The administration says it is strengthening the law, not repealing it. Either way, the rules for schools are about to change in a serious way.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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