NYT September 23, 2011
Obama Turns Some Powers of Education Back to States
With his declaration on Friday that he would waive the most contentious provisions of a federal education law, President Obama effectively rerouted the nation’s education history after a turbulent decade of overwhelming federal influence.
Mr. Obama invited states to reclaim the power to design their own school accountability and improvement systems, upending the centerpiece of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, a requirement that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.
“This does not mean that states will be able to lower their standards or escape accountability,” the president said. “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.”
But experts said it was a measure of how profoundly the law had reshaped America’s public school culture that even in states that accept the administration’s offer to pursue a new agenda, the law’s legacy will live on in classrooms, where educators’ work will continue to emphasize its major themes, like narrowing student achievement gaps, and its tactics, like using standardized tests to measure educators’ performance.
In a White House speech, Mr. Obama said states that adopted new higher standards, pledged to overhaul their lowest-performing schools and revamped their teacher evaluation systems should apply for waivers of 10 central provisions of the No Child law, including its 2014 proficiency deadline. The administration was forced to act, Mr. Obama said, because partisan gridlock kept Congress from updating the law.
“Given that Congress cannot act, I am acting,” Mr. Obama said. “Starting today, we’ll be giving states more flexibility.”
But while the law itself clearly empowers Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to waive its provisions, the administration’s decision to make the waivers conditional on states’ pledges to pursue Mr. Obama’s broad school improvement agenda has angered Republicans gearing up for the 2012 elections.
On Friday Congressional leaders immediately began characterizing the waivers as a new administration power grab, in line with their portrayal of the health care overhaul, financial sector regulation and other administration initiatives.
“In my judgment, he is exercising an authority and power he doesn’t have,” said Representative John Kline, Republican of Minnesota and chairman of the House education committee. “We all know the law is broken and needs to be changed. But this is part and parcel with the whole picture with this administration: they cannot get their agenda through Congress, so they’re doing it with executive orders and rewriting rules. This is executive overreach.”
Mr. Obama made his statements to a bipartisan audience that included Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican, Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, an independent, and 24 state superintendents of education.
“I believe this will be a transformative movement in American public education,” Christopher Cerf, New Jersey’s education commissioner under Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said after the speech.
The No Child law that President George W. Bush signed in 2002 was a bipartisan rewrite of the basic federal law on public schools, first passed in 1965 to help the nation’s neediest students. The 2002 law required all schools to administer reading and math tests every year, and to increase the proportion of students passing them until reaching 100 percent in 2014. Schools that failed to keep pace were to be labeled as failing, and eventually their principals fired and staffs dismantled. That system for holding schools accountable for test scores has encouraged states to lower standards, teachers to focus on test preparation, and math and reading to crowd out history, art and foreign languages.
Mr. Obama’s blueprint for rewriting the law, which Congress has never acted on, urged lawmakers to adopt an approach that would encourage states to raise standards, focus interventions only on the worst failing schools and use test scores and other measures to evaluate teachers’ effectiveness. In its current proposal, the administration requires states to adopt those elements of its blueprint in exchange for relief from the No Child law.
Mr. Duncan, speaking after Mr. Obama’s speech, said the waivers could bring significant change to states that apply. “For parents, it means their schools won’t be labeled failures,” Mr. Duncan said. “It should reduce the pressure to teach to the test.”
Critics were skeptical, saying that classroom teachers who complain about unrelenting pressure to prepare for standardized tests were unlikely to feel much relief.
“In the system that N.C.L.B. created, standardized tests are the measure of all that is good, and that has not changed,“ said Monty Neill, executive director of Fair Test, an antitesting advocacy group. “This policy encourages states to use test scores as a significant factor in evaluating teachers, and that will add to the pressure on teachers to teach to the test.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said her union favored evaluation systems that would help teachers improve their instruction, whereas the administration was focusing on accountability. “You’re seeing an extraordinary change of policy, from an accountability system focused on districts and schools, to accountability based on teacher and principal evaluations,” Ms. Weingarten said.
For most states, obtaining a waiver could be the easy part of accepting the administration’s invitation. Actually designing a new school accountability system, and obtaining statewide acceptance of it, represents a complex administrative and political challenge for governors and other state leaders, said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which the White House said played an important role in developing the waiver proposal.
Only about five states may be ready to apply immediately, and perhaps 20 others could follow by next spring, Mr. Wilhoit said. Developing new educator evaluation systems and other aspects of follow-through could take states three years or more, he said.
Officials in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and in at least eight other states — Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Idaho, Minnesota, Virginia and Wisconsin — said Friday that they would probably seek the waivers.