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No Child Left Behind Waivers: Some States Stay With Education Law, Cite Politics

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President Barack Obama speaks about flexibility for states with the No Child Left Behind law, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
President Barack Obama speaks about flexibility for states with the No Child Left Behind law, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

PITTSBURGH -- Some of the nation's largest states are questioning whether the Obama administration's offer to let them escape certain mandates of the No Child Left Behind law is a helping hand to improve education or a means to impose more federal control.

On Thursday, the administration freed 10 states from the strict requirements of the 2002 law championed by President George W. Bush, suggesting that would give them long-sought leeway to improve how they prepare and evaluate students. The law's goal is for all children to be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

California, Pennsylvania, and Texas are among 11 states that haven't asked for a waiver, although they could apply later. Pennsylvania's top educator said the offer doesn't make sense, in part because of political realities.

"What would happen if we had a new administration or a new law" next year, asked state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, who worked in the U.S. Department of Education during Bush's administration.

Tomalis said Pennsylvania is discussing alternatives to the waiver with the Obama administration.

"No one is saying that we should lower standards," Tomalis said. "But you could have a very different federal law in 18 months."

A spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency also questioned whether a waiver makes sense now.

"We'd love to get the flexibility this would provide, but we're worried about the strings attached," said Debbie Ratcliffe, who added that Texas officials are concerned the federal government might eventually impose a national curriculum and a national system to test students' abilities and evaluate teacher performance.

"We prefer state control," Ratcliffe said.

In California, Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction, has urged Congress to rework the law. He has said that his state already has a strong accountability system in place, and that meeting the requirements to get a waiver would appear to cost billions of dollars.

Education officials in Nebraska said Thursday that their state simply wasn't prepared to submit a waiver by the February deadline, but hadn't ruled out applying in the future.

"It's a fairly detailed process in order to set it up," said Brian Halstead, Nebraska's deputy education commissioner.

Some states could decide to wait to see if Obama wins re-election November to seek a waiver, said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Others could opt not to apply at all, betting the administration "won't be in a position to strongly clamp down on them for failure to meet progress goals that the administration has indirectly indicated it admits are unrealistic," Henig said.

But Henig also noted that when No Child Left Behind was passed, many states were simply willing to try something new.

"They didn't imagine that it was going to pinch as hard as it was going to," he said. "Now people know."

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Associated Press writers Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Neb., and Will Weissert in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.