Obama Sidesteps Congress by Offering Waivers to Schools Law

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: Kevin Lamarque/Pool via Bloomberg

President Barack Obama said his administration will let states sidestep the No Child Left Behind law if they commit to higher standards to improve their schools.

States that sign on to Obama’s agenda will get waivers from the law’s 2014 deadline for reaching 100 percent proficiency on standardized state reading and math exams, according to a White House plan.

Obama, who advocated for the waivers in a speech at the White House today, has pledged to fix the 9-year-old law, saying its focus on requiring testing proficiency hamstrings teachers, dumbs down learning and labels even high-achieving schools as failing. Because Congress hasn’t changed the law, the Education Department will ease some of its requirements, Obama said.

“Given that Congress cannot act, I am acting,” Obama said. “Our kids only get one shot at a decent education. They cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Without providing details, Education Secretary Arne Duncan indicated in June that the administration was likely to offer a waiver program in exchange for states’ adopting then-unspecified elements of the administration’s agenda.

The waiver plan sparked protest from John Kline, the Minnesota Republican chairman of the House education committee who has his own plan for changing the law.

‘Dangerous Precedent’

It gives Duncan “sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers,” Kline said in a statement. “This sets a dangerous precedent, and every single American should be extremely wary.”

The waiver plan could damage congressional efforts to change No Child Left Behind, said Kline and Senator Mike Enzi, the Wyoming Republican who is the Senate education committee’s ranking member. Those plans include bills promoting the growth of charter schools -- privately run public schools -- and cutting spending by eliminating half the federal education programs under current law. The charter-school bill passed the House on Sept. 13.

About 45 governors support the waiver plan, Duncan said this month. Prodded by the education secretary, 44 states and the District of Columbia have adopted a set of academic standards proposed by the nation’s governors and school chiefs. To get waivers, states must adopt such standards, as well as tie teacher evaluation to student achievement and pledge to turn around failing schools.

‘Patchwork Approach’

In a statement, Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who heads the Senate education committee, said the waiver plan is a “patchwork approach, rather than a national solution,” though “the best temporary solution available” until Congress rewrites the law.

By offering to eliminate key parts of No Child Left Behind, Obama’s approach amounts “to changing the law, not just waiving it,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., who served as an assistant secretary in the Education Department under President Ronald Reagan. The plan could benefit Obama in an election year by enabling him to oppose a “do-nothing” Congress while appealing to parents and teachers who object to the law, Finn said.

“The changes themselves -- at least their timing and high-profile release -- are motivated at least as much by election-year political considerations as by policy,” Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington education research organization, said in a statement.

‘Rigorous Interventions’

No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002, is former President George W. Bush’s signature education initiative. Officially called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law requires schools to show that all students are proficient on state standardized reading and math tests by 2014. Schools also must demonstrate yearly progress toward that goal or risk losing federal money.

States receiving waivers would be released from those requirements. They would also have access to about $1 billion in federal money now reserved for other purposes under No Child Left Behind, according to the White House.

To get waivers, states would have to agree to institute “rigorous interventions” to turn around the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools. An additional 10 percent of schools -- those with low graduation rates or poor performance among groups such as minorities or students with disabilities -- would receive more modest interventions. States will also be expected to reward the highest-achieving schools serving poor students.

Other countries are outpacing the U.S. in education, requiring the administration to take action now to maintain the nation’s competitiveness, Obama said in his speech.

“We can’t let another generation of young people fall behind because we didn’t have the courage to recognize what doesn’t work, admit it, and replace it with something that does,” Obama said. “We’ve got to act now.”

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