President Barack Obama gestures towards sixth grade student Keiry Herrera of Graham Road Elementary School in Fairfax, Va., as he speaks about No Child Left Behind Reform, Friday, Sept. 23, 2011, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
WASHINGTON -- Nearly everyone agrees the fix needs fixing. The No Child Left Behind law that was supposed to improve American education has left schools grumbling at being labeled "failures," state officials fuming and complaints everywhere about required testing.
But President Barack Obama's response on Friday -- he's allowing states to opt out -- is starting a new round of heated arguments.
There are questions about whether letting states bypass unpopular proficiency standards will help the nation's schoolchildren. And, even as states clamor to use the new waiver option, some lawmakers say Obama is inserting politics in what had been a bipartisan approach to education.
At the White House, the president said he was acting only because Congress wouldn't. He decried the state of U.S. education and called the "No Child" law -- a signature legacy of President George W. Bush's presidency -- an admirable but flawed effort that ended up hurting students instead of helping them.
Obama's announcement could fundamentally affect the education of tens of millions of children. It will allow states to scrap a key requirement that all children show they are proficient in reading and math by 2014 -- if those states meet conditions such as imposing their own standards to prepare students for college and careers and setting evaluation standards for teachers and principals.
Kids will still have to take yearly tests in math and reading, although the administration says the emphasis will be more on measuring growth over time.
The impact on school kids could vary greatly depending on how states choose to reward or punish individual schools. Under No Child Left Behind, children who attend schools deemed failures after a set period of time are eligible for extra tutoring and school choice. Under the president's plan, it's up to states granted waivers to decide if they will use those same remedies.
A majority of states are expected to apply for waivers, which would be given to those that qualify early next year.
State officials have long complained that if they had more flexibility, they could implement positive changes. Now, they will have to step up and prove it.
"This is really going to change things because it really does put responsibility squarely on the states," said Amy Wilkins, a vice president at Education Trust, a nonprofit that seeks to raise achievement standards in schools.