Obama Bypasses Congress on Education to Alter No Child Left Behind

After waiting for Congress to fix the Bush education law, Obama will allow waivers for states to opt out.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

It was, in 2001, George W. Bush’s signature accomplishment for school accountability. But just over a decade later, President Obama is ready to scale it back, even nix it completely.

At the White House on Friday, Obama announced new changes to the federal No Child Left Behind education law, which requires students and schools to take standardized tests to qualify for federal funding. But after a decade of bipartisan complaints about the law’s effectiveness—and its cost—Obama began to pull the string to unravel it by allowing states to apply for waivers from some of the law’s mandates.

“Starting today, we’ll be giving states more flexibility to meet high standards,” Obama said from the East Room. “We’re going to let states’ schools and teachers come up with more innovative ways to give students the tools they need to compete for the jobs of the future.”

The substance of Obama’s decision has been analyzed by education watchers, a large number who believe nationally standardized tests aren’t the key to pupil success. But the larger theme may be in Obama’s frustration with Congress, and his willingness to dismantle a once popular law by executive fiat, rather than push—and then wait for—congressional action to fix the law’s nonworking components.

Education is an area that could reasonably have common ground in Congress. Despite NCLB being a signature accomplishment of President Bush, even senior Republican lawmakers have lamented its lack of success.

“It’s not going to do any good, and nobody likes it,” Rep. Ron Paul said at a Republican debate for president Thursday night. “And there’s no value to it. The teachers don’t like it, and the students don’t like it.” The race’s frontrunner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, piled on: “It gets back to the federal government has no business telling the states how to educate our children.”

Bipartisan agreement or not, Obama showed his impatience waiting for some legislative motion. “Congress hasn’t been able to do it, so I will,” he said. “Congress hasn’t acted, so I am acting.”

A White House official says that Obama’s announcement isn’t designed to undo the law. “We’d like to make the law stronger, not get rid of it completely,” says the official, speaking on background.

If better education is the goal, the method may work. But the bigger threat for the White House may be the slippery slope of allowing federal waivers.

Since he signed his health-care reform package in 2010, congressional Republicans, and even some Democrats, have sought to nullify some of its parts, including the federal mandate to purchase insurance. Seven states have applied for waivers to the law, known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. If enough states are granted exemptions, the broader intent of the package may be quickly undercut.