The Obama administration effectively gutted the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law Monday, giving states a way out of a decade-long policy that focused on holding schools accountable but labeled many of them failures even if they made progress.
To get a waiver from the program, however, states must agree to host of education reforms the White House favors — from tougher evaluation systems for teachers and principals to programs tackling the achievement gap for minority students.
The federal law, which requires every student to be proficient in science and math by 2014, is four years past due for reauthorization. But it's become mired in the increasingly bipartisan mood on Capitol Hill despite repeated calls from President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for changes to be made before the school year starts. Obama sent an overhaul proposal to Congress 16 months ago.
Duncan has warned that 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled failures next year if the law is not changed. Education experts have questioned that estimate, but state officials report a growing number of schools facing sanctions under the law — from having to offer free tutoring to being forced to shut down entirely.
Tired of waiting for Congress to act, Obama has told Duncan to move forward with waivers, said Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council for the White House.
"We have a federal law that's an impediment, that's getting in the way as a disincentive for the great work states are doing," Duncan said in a call with reporters Monday afternoon. "That just doesn't make sense at a time when we have to get better faster than ever before."
Republicans bristled at the move.
"I share the sense of urgency felt by state and local education officials across the nation. Unfortunately, more questions than answers surround the secretary's waivers proposal," said House education committee chairman John Kline of Minnesota.
Under the law, states were required to show that a higher proportion of students were reaching proficiency each year — approaching the goal of 100 percent by 2014. Many had planned to achieve their biggest leaps in the later years because they counted on the law being rewritten by now.
The law was passed in 2001 and was up for reauthorization in 2007, but former President George W. Bush was unable to get Congress to address the law's problems during the waning years of his presidency. Obama waited a year into his presidency to introduce a blueprint for rewriting the law.
A handful of states had already filed waivers begging for flexibility, while others simply said they were going to ignore the requirements of the law this year.
Recent high-profile cheating scandals in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., have called attention to the heavy reliance on statewide standardized testing. Experts say many districts feel pressure to meet the standards to avoid penalties under the law.
On Monday, states including Montana, Minnesota, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Virginia and Georgia announced their plans to file for waivers.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said the federal law "does not give you a comprehensive view of progress being made."
"I think ultimately the people understood that the more they got into and the more the years passed and those percentages began to escalate, that there were significant structural problems built into it," said Deal, who voted for No Child Left Behind in 2001 while in serving in Congress.
Montana Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau said she welcomes the waiver proposal as long as it offers relief from the 2014 deadline. She said her state isn't afraid of high standards and education reform but needs enough time to reach those standards and the ability to institute change in a way that works for Montana.
"They can set the bar wherever they want. They just have to let us have the flexibility to get there," Juneau said.
Through the waivers, schools will get some relief from looming deadlines to meet testing goals. Details on the waivers will be provided to states next month.
Democrats in Congress lined up behind the White House's plan.
"Given the ill-advised and partisan bills that the House majority has chosen to move, I understand Secretary Duncan's decision to proceed with a waiver package to provide some interim relief while Congress finishes its work," said Senate education committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in a written statement.
Duncan said that the plan for temporary relief from some aspects of the federal law would not undermine what Congress is still discussing in terms of revising federal education laws. The long-awaited overhaul of the law began earlier this year in the House, but a comprehensive reform appears far from the finish line.
"What we do in terms of flexibility can be a bridge or transition," Duncan said. "We all want to fix the law. This might help us get closer to that."
"I can't overemphasize how loudly the outcry is to do something now."