Obama Unveils No Child Left Behind Waiver System

President Barack Obama today (September 23) announced a plan to grant states exemptions from some No Child Left Behind requirements in exchange for instituting education reforms.

The Obama administration says the system will give states more freedom under a law that has been criticized by some as a federally mandated "one-size-fits-all" approach. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, joined Obama for the announcement, with Haslam introducing the president.

"I look forward to the federal government narrowing its role in education," the Tennessee governor said. "Education decisions are best made at the state level."

To receive waivers from some of the requirements — most notably a target of achieving 100 percent proficiency on standardized tests in math and reading by 2014 — states will be required to institute three reforms: 

     • Develop and implement college- and career-readiness standards for math and reading and implement statewide tests to measure progress in achieving those standards. 

     • Create a flexible accountability system to measure school performance, taking into account different types of schools. States would be required to develop intervention plans for the lowest-performing "priority" schools and strategies to improve "focus schools" flagged for poor graduation rates, large achievement gaps and particularly struggling student subgroups. 

     • Develop teacher and principal evaluation systems that track achievement based on student performance and other measures and give feedback to teachers on how to improve.

"The purpose is not to give states and districts a reprieve from accountability," Obama said in a statement released before his talk, "but rather to unleash energy to improve our schools at the local level."

At the White House, Obama spoke about the importance of harnessing the best ideas at the state and local level and emphasized that the waiver requirements would give individual states more flexibility.

"What works in Rhode Island may not be what works in Tennnessee," he said.

Senior administration officials speaking Thursday said they consulted with education officials from 45 states in developing the waiver system. A number of states indicated earlier this summer that they plan to apply for the waivers, but administration officials say they are not sure how many states will formally apply. The U.S. Department of Education plans to begin accepting applications as early as mid-October, with peer-reviewed decisions coming on the first applications early next year.

For interested states, that timetable could depend on whether achieving the waiver reforms requires legislative action. The mandatory reforms dovetail with some of the requirements from the previous Race to the Top competition for federal funds, so some states have already instituted some of the required measures.

The administration had hoped for a Congressional overhaul of the nearly ten-year-old education law before the start of the current school year. It says the education department is authorized to offer the waivers under provisions of the law, but some in Congress disagree , Education Week reports.

Under the current law, failure to achieve adequate yearly progress on standardized tests put states at risk of losing Title I funds, given to schools with large low-income populations. The law also required poorly-performing schools to give students the option to transfer and restructure. The waiver would allow states to develop their own model for tracking the progress of their schools and give them more freedom in spending federal funds, according to the department.

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