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Obama lets 10 states miss No Child Left Behind deadline in exchange for reform plans

Obama at science fair

Feb. 7, 2012: President Barack Obama talks with, from left, Janet Nieto, Gwynelle Condino, and Ana Nieto, all from Presidio, Texas, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington during the White House Science Fair.AP

President Obama on Thursday allowed 10 states to miss an approaching deadline under the No Child Left Behind law, after the states struggled to meet the proficiency standards but offered alternative reform plans the administration accepted. 

The executive action will circumvent Congress, which has been stuck on how to rewrite the law. Under the plan, 10 states will receive "flexibility" allowing them to miss 2014 targets for student proficiency. However, those states will be required to set new targets -- to implement "comprehensive" plans to reward high-performing schools, punish low-performing schools, prepare students for college and the work force and evaluate school officials.

Obama said Thursday that the states would be granted the flexibility in exchange for implementing "high standards." 

"The goals of No Child Left Behind were the right ones. Standards and accountability, those are the right goals," Obama said. But he said educators shouldn't have to "teach to the test," and said the new benchmarks will incorporate other factors for measuring school and teacher achievement. 

The first 10 states to receive the waivers are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee. The only state that applied for the flexibility and did not get it, New Mexico, is working with the administration to get approval.

Meanwhile, 28 other states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, "have indicated their intent to seek flexibility," one official said. 

No Child Left Behind requires all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Obama's action strips away that fundamental requirement for those approved for flexibility, provided they offer a viable plan instead. 

The president has been critical of the law, which was passed under the George W. Bush administration. In September, Obama said action was necessary because Congress failed to update the law despite widespread bipartisan agreement that it needs fixing. Republicans have charged that by granting waivers, Obama was overreaching his authority.

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. No Child Left Behind was primarily designed to help the nation's poor and minority children and was passed a decade ago with widespread bipartisan support. It has been up for renewal since 2007. But lawmakers 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.

For all the cheers that states may have about the changes, the move also reflects the sobering reality that the United States is not close to the law's original goal: getting children to grade level in reading and math.

Critics today say the 2014 deadline was unrealistic, the law is too rigid and led to teaching to the test, and too many schools feel they are labeled as "failures." Under No Child Left Behind, schools that don't meet requirements for two years or longer face increasingly tough consequences, including busing children to higher-performing schools, offering tutoring and replacing staff.

As the deadline approaches, more schools are failing to meet requirements under the law, with nearly half not doing so last year, according to the Center on Education Policy. Center officials said that's because some states today have harder tests or have high numbers of immigrant and low-income children, but it's also because the law requires states to raise the bar each year for how many children must pass the test.

In states granted a waiver, students will still be tested annually. But starting this fall, schools in those states will no longer face the same prescriptive actions spelled out under No Child Left Behind. A school's performance will also probably be labeled differently.

The pressure will probably still be on the lowest-performing schools in states granted a waiver, but mediocre schools that aren't failing will probably see the most changes because they will feel less pressure and have more flexibility in how they spend federal dollars, said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.

While the president's action marks a change in education policy in America, the reach is limited. The populous states of Pennsylvania, Texas and California are among those that have not said they will seek a waiver, although they could still do so later.

On Tuesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said states without a waiver will be held to the standards of No Child Left Behind because "it's the law of the land."

Some conservatives viewed Obama's plan not as giving more flexibility to states, but as imposing his vision on them. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, said the president allowed "an arbitrary timeline" to dictate when Congress should get the law rewritten and set a dangerous precedent by granting the education secretary "sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers."

Duncan maintained this week that the administration "desperately" wants Congress to fix the law.

In an election year in a divided Congress, that appears unlikely to happen.

A Senate committee last fall passed a bipartisan bill to update the law, but it was opposed by the administration and did not go before the full Senate for a vote.

Kline released a draft of a Republican-written bill to update the law, earning the ire of California Rep. George Miller, the committee's ranking Democrat. Miller said such partisanship "means the end" to No Child Left Behind reform in this Congress. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate committee with jurisdiction over education, has said he believes it "would be difficult to find a path forward" without a bipartisan bill in the House. 

Fox News' Sarah Courtney and The Associated Press contributed to this report.