States Hope For Relief With 'No Child' Waivers

Six months ago, President Obama directed his secretary of education to give waivers to states seeking much-needed relief from the federal education mandates prescribed under No Child Left Behind. On Thursday, they granted them to ten. But how much flexibility is the president really willing to give and what is he asking in return?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. Five months ago, President Obama issued this directive to the U.S. Department of Education - give greater flexibility to states seeking relief from the most rigid requirements of the No Child Left Behind law. Well, today, Mr. Obama announced that 10 states will receive waivers. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports that those states are now free to chart their own path toward better schools.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Speaking to an audience of state education officials, teachers, civil rights and business leaders, President Obama said relief from No Child Left Behind was finally on its way.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In September, after waiting far too long for Congress to act, I announced that my administration would take steps to reform No Child Left Behind on our own.

SANCHEZ: Here are the 10 states getting waivers: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Indiana and Massachusetts. They can now move forward with their own school reform plans, with some conditions - that they adopt rigorous standards, fix dysfunctional schools, close the achievement gap between low and high performing students and do a better job training and evaluating teachers and principals.

Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Dr. Mitchell Chester, says even with these requirements, this is real relief.

MITCHELL CHESTER: We're a state that has the highest academic achievement of the 50 states, yet under the No Child Left Behind adequate yearly progress criteria, 80 percent of our schools, literally, and 90 percent of our districts are failing the federal criteria, which absolutely flies in the face of common sense and is not very helpful.

SANCHEZ: Now, with its waiver in hand, Chester says Massachusetts will no longer have to meet the one target set by No Child Left Behind that's been driving everybody crazy, that by 2014, 100 percent of the students perform at or above grade level, especially in Math and Reading.

CHESTER: Instead of expecting 100 percent proficiency, what we are requiring is that every school make continuous progress with a six-year goal of cutting in half the percentage of students who are not on grade level.

SANCHEZ: Another problem with No Child Left Behind is that states have been reporting one set of results about students' progress and the federal government another.

TONY BENNETT: So in a very confusing manner in Indiana, there have been two announcements each year.

SANCHEZ: Dr. Tony Bennett is Indiana's superintendent of public instruction.

BENNETT: So one of the primary reasons we wanted to pursue a waiver was to consolidate these two accountability systems so that Indiana citizens had one announcement and one determination on how their schools in their communities perform.

SANCHEZ: So with 10 states now approved for waivers and at least 28 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia expected to apply in a second round, states should be happy. But Mike Petrilli doesn't see it that way. He's with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank.

MICHAEL PETRILLI: There's widespread support for waivers. Where there's a lot of disagreement are around the conditions that the administration has attached to the waivers.

SANCHEZ: Like requiring more rigorous evaluations of teachers as a condition of getting a waiver. That's a huge issue that state and teachers' unions aren't even close to resolving.

PETRILLI: What I suspect we're going to see in coming days is a lot of frustration. Yes, states will be given some flexibility, but it's going to be much less flexibility than they asked for originally.

SANCHEZ: Mr. Obama insists that as long as Congress sits on the long delayed rewrite of No Child Left Behind, waivers are the only way states will ever get relief. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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