By: Abby Schopick

In August of 2011, President Barack Obama announced that he would sign an executive order allowing states to opt out of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  The President stated that, “After waiting far too long for Congress to reform No Child Left Behind, my Administration is giving states the opportunity to set higher, more honest standards in exchange for more flexibility,”  (  In response to this announcement, eleven states asked to be granted waivers exempting them from the mandates of NCLB.  On February 9, 2012, President Obama announced that ten states have been granted NCLB waivers.  These ten states are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.  The only state that applied for a waiver and was not granted one was New Mexico, and it is currently working with the Administration to figure out how to secure a waiver in the future.

Despite an overwhelming belief, by both sides of the aisle, that something needs to be done to reform NCLB, there have been mixed reactions to this waiver program.  While many on the more liberal and progressive side applaud the waivers, many on the conservative side are assailing President Obama for what they consider an unconstitutional bypassing of Congress. “The executive action by Obama is one of his most prominent in an ongoing campaign to act on his own where Congress is rebuffing him. . . .[L]awmakers have been stymied for years by competing priorities, disagreements over how much of a federal role there should be in schools and, in the recent Congress, partisan gridlock.”  (

Exactly how long did the Republicans want President Obama to wait on a Congress that was generally choosing not to act?  There has been minimal movement in Congress toward revisions to NCLB, but there is no indication, especially in an election year, that either side of the aisle is truly willing to work toward revisions right now, despite the fact that both sides agree revisions need to be made.  On October 20, 2011, the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee voted out of Committee a bill to revise NCLB.  The bipartisan bill has been opposed by many, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and all types of advocacy groups including the US Chamber of Commerce, the NAACP, the Education Trust, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.  Generally, those opposed feel that the proposed legislation would remove accountability for many schools, and would only seek to assist the very lowest performing of schools.  This legislation, referred to by many as the Harkin-Enzi bill, is the only legislation that has been proposed in Congress this session to combat the problems with NCLB.

Given the overall lack of action by Congress, how is it that many conservatives are claiming President Obama is bypassing Congress by actually working to find fixes to the incredibly important task of educating young Americans?  President Obama told Congress, numerous times, that he wanted it to work on legislation to fix NCLB.  Congress chose not to act in a realistic manner.  That, however, has not stopped conservatives from saying that the President is acting in an inappropriate, unilateral manner because “Congress had already been working for more than a year to craft various alternatives to the broken law[; b]ut the Obama administration wouldn’t wait for the legislative process to work.”  (  What exactly was he supposed to be waiting for?

There have been many instances, in recent years, where one side of the aisle would say that the other side was not taking real action on a topic because they were not considering legislation brought forth by the minority.  In this case, however, Republicans are not bringing forth their own ideas as to how to fix NCLB.  They, like the Democrats in Congress, have not brought forth any real solutions to a problem that both parties admit exists.  But conservatives seem to believe that the President should do nothing, even on issues as crucial to our nation as the education of children, unless Congress chooses to act first.

President Obama was clear when he announced the creation of the waiver program that the only states that would be granted waivers were those that “adopt higher standards than those mandated under . . . No Child Left Behind.” (  The idea behind the waivers, according to the Administration, is that the initial goals set by the legislation, calling for 100% proficiency in math and reading by 2014, are unattainable for even the highest performing school districts.  The Administration believes that by allowing states with high standards to opt out of this unattainable mandate, the states would then be free to work toward the best outcomes for the students in the state, and not be constrained by goals that cannot be realistically met.

In order to be eligible to receive a waiver, states had to submit a report regarding the state’s proposal for how to ensure maximum high-school graduation rates, and that all children, upon graduation, will be either college or career ready.  Like under NCLB, the states are still required to test all students, including those who are not native English speakers and students with cognitive disabilities, but the state is allowed to create alternative methods for those students with disabilities for whom traditional testing measures are unreasonable.  Generally, the states intend to work with teachers to ensure that those from whom children are learning are fully equipped to make sure students are getting the most out of their time in school.  Additionally, in the high school years, states want to make available more college-like classes, such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, as well as access to classes at community colleges while still in high school, to allow students to prepare for college work before actually enrolling.  Although the states are being exempted from some of the NCLB federal oversight, they must implement oversight mechanisms within the state, to ensure that students are receiving the best educational outcomes possible.

Although there are many opposed to the waiver program, among the states it has been incredibly popular.  In addition to the initial ten states receiving waivers, New Mexico is working with the Administration to secure a waiver in the future.  Additionally, there are twenty-eight states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, who are planning to apply for waivers in the next cycle of waiver applications.  These thirty jurisdictions, who plan to submit for waivers by the second posted deadline of February 28, 2012, include some of the most conservative states in the country, such as Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Utah.

The waivers to NCLB might not be the answer to the problem.  Unless someone tries something, however, no one can ever know if the ideas proposed by the ten waiver states will work better than the broken NCLB system.  President Obama saw a broken system that needed fixing.  He asked Congress to act, and it declined to do so.  He was well within his rights to find a way to act where Congress would not.  We can only hope that the proposals of the current waiver states, and those that will come next, will quickly work to improve the educational system in our country.