Did Obama Just Rollback No Child Left Behind?

Federal officials will grant waivers on No Child Left Behind in exchange for reforms

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Today President Obama made the most significant reform to No Child Left Behind since the law was enacted, giving schools waivers on some of the law's strictest provisions. The announcement triggered disagreements on whether the directive was rolling back the Bush-era education law, or emboldening it, since each wavier will have strings attached for the schools that accept them.

These are the conditions for each waiver, explains The Washington Post's Lyndsey Layton:

Waivers will be awarded to states that adopt academic standards that ensure their high school graduates are ready for college or a career, measure school performance not merely by test results but by student improvement over time, and evaluate teachers and principals using a variety of measures, including but not limited to student test scores.

States will be required to launch “rigorous” campaigns to turn around their lowest-performing schools — the bottom 5 percent. And they will have to devise ways to focus on students with the greatest needs in another 10 percent of schools with low graduation rates or large achievement gaps between students of different races.

This is gutting school accountability, writes Joy Pullmann at The Weekly Standard: "Obama is right about one thing: NCLB needs to see legislative action. The sweeping bill greatly expanded the federal government's sway over education, sending states lots more money but requiring much in return. Now, Obama and Duncan would like to continue giving states lots of education money, but release them from accountability for it. That's exactly backward."

No: This Measure Strengthens NCLB, counters Matt Yglesias at Think Progress:

The story is that the administration is trying to drive reform forward by imposing conditionality, not that they’re backing off reform by granting the waivers...

The [original] law—intentionally, as I understand it—set an unrealistic goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014. But the law also allows the Secretary of Education to grant waivers. Since the goal is unrealistic, states will be wanting those waivers. So by making the waivers conditional on states doing new reformy stuff, the administration can push the reform agenda forward without congressional authorization...

This basically takes the sigma off 'failing schools,' writes Dana Goldstein at The Nation:

This is a significant change from the original NCLB, which asked states to intervene in every school labeled “failing.” According to the DOE, an estimated 80 percent of American schools are on track to “fail” by 2014. No Child Left Behind’s 100 percent intervention requirement was always unrealistic, and could never have been enforced. Nevertheless, it is stigmatizing to states, teachers, schools, neighborhoods and students for schools to be labeled “failing,” so there is ample incentive for states to apply for the waivers.

This is more federal intrusion, not less, writes Neal McCluskey at the CATO Institute:

The administration [is] telling states that they can get waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act—which the NCLB allows—but requiring that they adopt administration-approved policies to do so. That second part the NCLB does not allow, meaning the president has decided to rewrite the law all by himself—including strong-arming states to adopt “college and career ready standards,” another step toward federal curriculum standards—even though the Constitution is crystal clear: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.”

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