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WAIVE AROUND: Obama Outlines Plan Allowing States to Waive Specific Provisions of No Child Left Behind Act

“I am concerned that waivers provide a patchwork approach rather than a national solution … It’s my strong preference that we pass legislation that provides a path forward for all 50 states, not just those who choose to pursue the waiver package.”

With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—currently known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act—still under consideration in Congress, President Obama outlined a plan to provide states with flexibility from specific provisions of the law in exchange for state-led reform efforts to close achievement gaps, evaluate teachers and principals, promote rigorous accountability, and ensure that all students are on track to graduate ready for college and a career.

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“I’ve urged Congress for a while now, let’s get a bipartisan effort, let’s fix [NCLB],” Obama said. “Congress hasn’t been able to do it. So I will. Our kids only get one shot at a decent education. They cannot afford to wait any longer. So, given that Congress cannot act, I am acting.” (Watch video of the president’s announcement by clicking on the image to the right).

During his September 23 speech, Obama said the goals behind NCLB were “admirable” and praised the law’s focus on higher standards, accountability, and closing the achievement gap. At the same time, Obama said NCLB’s implementation had some “serious flaws,” such as forcing teachers to teach to tests, “squeezing out” history and science, and allowing states to lower their standards to prevent their schools from being labeled failures.

Under Obama’s plan, a state may request flexibility through waivers of several provisions of NCLB, including NCLB’s requirement that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Other notable provisions that can be waived are NCLB’s school improvement requirements, including the required expenditures for public school choice and supplemental educational services, and the requirement of improvement plans for school districts that do not meet their targets for highly qualified teachers.

Obama was careful to note that the waiver plan would not lead to lower standards or allow states to escape accountability. “The way we’ve structured this, 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,” he said.

In order to receive a waiver, states must implement reform efforts that address each of the following four key principles: college- and career-ready expectations for all students; state-developed systems of differentiated recognition, accountability, and support; effective instruction and leadership; and reduction of duplicative and burdensome reporting requirements.

In reaction to Obama’s waiver plan, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) recognized the urgency to reform the current law, but said the U.S. Department of Education should not be granted the “sweeping authority to bypass Congress.” Kline said that any initiative that “holds temporary measures above quality, lasting reforms will create more upheaval and uncertainty for states in the long run.”

Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP), called Obama’s plan a “fundamental and dramatic shift in authority from Congress to the administration.” Enzi said the best way to address the issues Obama raises is through legislation and added that he was “extremely disappointed that after spending so many hours working toward a solution, we have reached a point where the president appears to preempt our efforts with waivers.”

Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) acknowledged the obstacles preventing Congress from getting a reauthorized ESEA to the president’s desk and said he understands Obama’s decision to provide interim relief to states while Congress finishes its work. Harkin said waivers were the “best temporary solution available,” but stressed that new legislation is the best way to fix NCLB.

“The best way to fix problems in existing law is to pass a new one,” Harkin said. “I am concerned that waivers provide a patchwork approach rather than a national solution … It’s my strong preference that we pass legislation that provides a path forward for all 50 states, not just those who choose to pursue the waiver package.”

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Alliance President Bob Wise called the waiver plan a step forward but agreed that the only real solution is for Congress to pass new legislation. In the video to the right, Wise compares Obama’s waiver plan to a punch in the boxing ring.

“The Executive Branch has chosen to move forward with waivers because Congress hasn’t acted,” Wise said. “So here’s the challenge: Congress, climb back in the ring, duke it out. Pass the legislation that truly leads to education reform and take away the need for waivers. When you do that, you score a knockout for our kids. There’s still time.” (Watch the complete video by clicking on the image to the right).

Download a White House fact sheet on Obama’s waiver plan at

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