(Updates with Obama quotes in fourth, 10th paragraphs.)
Feb. 9 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama is freeing 10 states from requirements of the No Child Left Behind law as they pursue alternate means of judging student progress.
The states obtaining a waiver from the law, pushed by former President George W. Bush, a Republican, are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.
In exchange for the waiver, the states agreed to raise standards, improve accountability and take steps to improve teacher effectiveness, according to Democrat Obama.
“We can combine greater freedom with greater accountability,” Obama said at the White House before an audience of state education officials, teachers, civil rights and business leaders. “Each of these states has set higher benchmarks for student achievement.”
Almost half of U.S. public schools are labeled failing under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The administration has cited the failure rate as a reason to offer states and local school authorities more flexibility.
The estimated percentage of schools that didn’t show adequate progress toward passing state standardized tests of math and reading was 48 percent in 2011, a record and an increase from 39 percent in 2010, according to a report in December by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group.
Under No Child Left Behind, each state establishes its own proficiency tests and determines what constitutes passing. That system penalized states with higher standards and gives them an incentive to make the tests easier, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said. In addition, high-performing schools can be labeled failing if a subgroup of students -- such as students with disabilities or those who speak English as a second language --don’t pass tests.
The Obama administration, joined by many local educators, says the law labels too many schools as failing, dictates unworkable remedies and leads to a reduction of education standards, weakened accountability and a narrower curriculum.
The education law was due for an overhaul more than five years ago. The administration gave Congress a “blueprint for reform” in March 2010. Congress hasn’t acted.
“Our kids and our schools can’t be held back by inaction,” Obama said.
Under the new plans, the states getting waivers would be exempt from the 2014 targets of current law, though they still must take steps to boost student performance and close achievement gaps, with an emphasis on raising achievements in lowest-performing schools.
They also would be granted more leeway in using federal education funds targeted at students from low-income families to close those gaps.
An 11th state, New Mexico, has requested an exemption from the requirements of the 2002 law, and 28 other states, joined by Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, have alerted the Department of Education of their intent to seek waivers.
U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who heads the Senate education committee, released a draft bill in October that would overhaul No Child Left Behind, freeing all but the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools from the threat of federal sanctions.
In the House, Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican chairman of the education committee, is proposing a series of bills to change the law. Kline has said that the Department of Education waivers may damage congressional efforts to fix No Child Left Behind and amounts to an overreaching use of the administration’s power.
“The administration’s waiver scheme provides just enough temporary relief to quiet the demand for lasting reform,” Kline said in a statement today as he introduced two measures, including one that would replace federal with state-developed accountability systems.
The president’s plan sets a precedent because past Education Department waivers have been on “smaller issues,” rather than amounting to a way to bypass Congress to change a law, Diane Rentner, interim director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research group, said in an interview. States are pushing hard to get relief from the law, she said.
“There’s a recognition that something needed to happen,” Rentner said in a phone interview. “It doesn’t appear that Congress is able to do that.”
--With assistance from John Hechinger in Boston. Editors: Joe Sobczyk, Ann Hughey.
Hans Nichols in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the reporters on this story: Roger Runningen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steve Komarow at email@example.com