For States, More Flexibility In Education Policies

Many public school systems chafed under No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era law requiring states to closely monitor student achievement and conduct more regular testing. President Obama announced Friday that states can now qualify for exemptions from some of the law's key requirements. Guest host Jacki Lyden discusses the changes with Education Week Staff Writer Alyson Klein.

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JACKI LYDEN, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a classic series of children's stories is coming alive in a new language. The Berenstain Bears television cartoon has been voiced in more than 20 languages, and now it can be heard in Lakota, one of the languages spoken by the Sioux tribe of North America. More on that in a moment.

But first, President Obama is set to deliver his third annual back-to-school speech on Wednesday. This comes as his administration is working to make big changes to No Child Left Behind. That's the federal law that requires states to set minimum testing standards for public schools. The law's proven to be controversial among educators and unpopular among state politicians, who've been clamoring for more control over their education policies.

Now, it looks like they're getting just that. On Friday, President Obama announced that states can now qualify for waivers that will exempt them from some of the law's key requirements.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

President BARACK OBAMA: Higher standards are the right goal. Accountability is the right goal. Closing the achievement gap is the right goal. And we've got to stay focused on those goals. But experience has taught us that in its implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws.

LYDEN: To talk more about the legacy and future of No Child Left Behind, I'm joined by Alyson Klein. She's a staff writer for Education Week, where she writes the education policy blog Politics K-12. Alyson, thanks for coming in.

ALYSON KLEIN: Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: So with this announcement, some significant changes to No Child Left Behind. Tell us what they mean, exactly, for a number of states that have struggled with implementing them.

KLEIN: Well, basically, states would get some wiggle room from some of the key requirements of the No Child Left Behind law if they agree to a certain set of reforms that the president has laid out. They would be allowed to get some wiggle room on the 2013-14 deadline, which is coming up in the law. That is supposed to be for bringing all students to proficiency on state tests.

They would also no longer have to meet special requirements for teacher qualifications. There's a highly qualified teacher requirement, and they wouldn't have to meet that anymore. They'd also get some funding flexibility.

LYDEN: And both Republican and Democratic governors have objected to this law. Republican governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, delivered the introduction ahead of the president's address Friday. He voiced support for the changes. So did Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker. Why is that, and what do states have to do to qualify for these waivers?

KLEIN: Well, states would basically have to outline a new plan for intervening in most schools. Under the - sort of the waivers, states would be basically allowed to intervene in 85 percent of schools. The Feds would still have strict requirements for about 15 percent. So states would get to, basically, decide what they think would work best for that 85 percent. That gives governors like Governor Haslam the running room that they've been asking the Obama administration for.

LYDEN: What's the biggest risk, do you think? If the vast majority of states participate in this, does it mean that No Child Left Behind is over, and where is the emphasis now?

KLEIN: I wouldn't say that it means No Child Left Behind is necessarily over because we would still be under these waiver requirements, and we'll have to see how they're actually implemented. But you know, in theory, states would still have to set standards. They'd still have to measure student progress towards those standards. Standardized testing - it's is one of most criticized parts of the law - isn't going away. You'd still have to look at how different groups of students are doing relative to each other. So some of the key tenets would still be in place.

LYDEN: Alyson Klein is a staff writer for Education Week, where she writes a blog called Politics K-12, and she was kind enough to come in here from Bethesda, Maryland, and join us in the studio. Thank you very much.

KLEIN: Thank you.

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