Decrying the state of American education, President Obama announced Friday that his administration is allowing states to be exempt from basic elements of the No Child Left Behind law if they meet certain conditions.
States can now apply for waivers so that they won't face federal sanctions under the sweeping Bush-era legislation.
The announcement could fundamentally affect the education of tens of millions of children. It will allow states to scrap the requirement that all children must show they are proficient in reading and math by 2014 — a cornerstone of the law — if states meet conditions designed to better prepare and test students.
The president said he had to take action because Congress has tried but failed to pass an update to the law. During a White House ceremony, Obama said that's why he has to grant waivers to states that are making good faith efforts, but still can't meet the standards of the law.
"Congress hasn't been able to do it. So I will," Obama said. "Our kids only get one shot at a decent education."
He said better education was at the heart of a solid American economy of middle-class jobs, and that compared with other nations, the U.S. was slipping.
Under the plan Obama outlined, states can ask the Education Department to be exempted from some of the law's requirements if they meet certain conditions, such as imposing standards to prepare students for college and careers and setting evaluation standards for teachers and principals.
Despite allowing states to do away with the approaching 2014 deadline, Obama insisted he was not weakening the law, but rather helping states set higher standards. He said that the current law was forcing educators to teach to the test, give short shrift to subjects such as history and science, and lower standards as a way of avoiding penalties and stigmas.
To qualify for a waiver, states would have to show they had a plan to help low-performing schools. A majority of states are expected to apply for waivers, which will be given to qualified states early next year.
But the application process is complicated, and is already prompting concerns that the administration is using the waivers to meddle in state education systems. Some members of Congress insist they are the only ones with the authority to revise No Child Left Behind.
Rep. John Kline (R-MN), who chairs the House Education Committee, has questioned whether the Education Department has the authority to offer waivers in exchange for changes it supports. He's said Obama has allowed "an arbitrary timeline" to dictate when Congress should get the law rewritten and that the committee needs more time to develop its proposals.
Kline on Thursday called the administration's plan a political move and said he could not support a process that sets a precedent by granting the education secretary "sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers."
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), the ranking member on the Senate committee that oversees education, said the president's plan would undermine the policymaking authority of Congress.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said the plan would not undermine efforts in Congress because the waivers could serve as a bridge until Congress acts.
The law is a signature legacy of President George W. Bush's administration and was approved with strong bipartisan support nearly a decade ago. But its popularity tanked as the years went on, as disputes over money divided Congress, schools said they were being labeled "failures," and questions soared over the testing and teacher-quality provisions.
Critics say the law placed too much emphasis on standardized tests, raising the stakes so high for school districts that it may have driven some school officials to cheat. In particular, the requirement that all students be on grade level in math and reading by 2014 has been hugely unpopular.
The GOP-led House Education Committee has forwarded three bills that would revamp aspects of the law but has yet to fully tackle some of the more contentious issues such as teacher effectiveness and accountability.
NPR's Larry Abramson contributed to this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.