WASHINGTON - Decrying the state of American education, President Barack Obama today said states will get unprecedented freedom to waive basic elements of the sweeping Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, calling it an admirable but flawed effort that has hurt 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 the requirement that all children must show they are proficient in reading and math by 2014 - a cornerstone of the law - if states meet conditions designed to better prepare and test students.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam introduced Obama and praised him for making the changes.
"As a Republican governor, I may not always agree with this administration on policy issues or the proper role of the federal government," Haslam said. "But I do believe that when there are things we can work on together, we should."
Tennessee was the first state to apply for a waiver from some of the No Child Left Behind Act provisions.
"In Tennessee," Haslam said, "we have raised our standards, linked teacher evaluation to student performance, and we are holding ourselves accountable. We believe we are most qualified to make our own decisions about how to continue our progress in making certain every child has an opportunity to learn."
And the president took a shot at Congress, saying his executive action was needed only because lawmakers have not stepped in to improve the law for years.
"Congress hasn't been able to do it. So I will," Obama said. "Our kids only get one shot at a decent education."
Under the plan Obama outlined, states can ask the Education Department to be exempted from some of the law's requirements if they meet certain conditions, such as imposing standards to prepare students for college and careers and setting evaluation standards for teachers and principals.
Despite allowing states to do away with the approaching 2014 deadline, Obama insisted he was not weakening the law, but rather helping states set higher standards. He said that the current law was forcing educators to teach to the test, give short shrift to subjects such as history and science, and lower standards as a way of avoiding penalties and stigmas.
The law is a signature legacy of President George W. Bush's administration and was approved with strong bipartisan support nearly a decade ago. But its popularity tanked as the years went on, as disputes over money divided Congress, schools said they were being labeled "failures," and questions soared over the testing and teacher-quality provisions.
"The goals behind No Child Left Behind were admirable, and President Bush deserves credit for that," Obama said during a statement from the White House.
"Higher standards are the right goal. Accountability is the right goal. Closing the achievement gap is the right goal. And we've got to stay focused on those goals," Obama said. "But experience has taught us that in its implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping them."
Obama said better education was at the heart of a solid American economy of middle-class jobs, and that compared with other nations, the United States was slipping.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House Education Committee, has questioned whether the Education Department has the authority to offer waivers in exchange for changes it supports. He's said Obama has allowed "an arbitrary timeline" to dictate when Congress should get the law rewritten and that the committee needs more time to develop its proposals.
Kline on Thursday called the administration's plan a political move and said he could not support a process that sets a precedent by granting the education secretary "sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers."
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the ranking member on the Senate committee that oversees education, said the president's plan would undermine the policymaking authority of Congress.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said the plan would not undermine efforts in Congress because the waivers could serve as a bridge until Congress acts.
In Obama's plan, states granted waivers would have more control over how troubled schools are handled, although to qualify for a waiver they would have to show they had a plan to help low-performing schools. A majority of states are expected to apply for waivers, which will be given to qualified states early next year.
Critics say the law placed too much emphasis on standardized tests, raising the stakes so high for school districts that it may have driven some school officials to cheat. In particular, the requirement that all students be on grade level in math and reading by 2014 has been hugely unpopular.
Duncan has warned that 82 percent of schools next year could fail to reach proficiency requirements and thus be labeled "failures," although some experts questioned the figure.
The law has been due for a rewrite since 2007. Obama and Duncan had asked Congress to overhaul it by the start of this school year but a growing ideological divide in Congress has complicated efforts to do so.
The GOP-led House Education Committee has forwarded three bills that would revamp aspects of the law but has yet to fully tackle some of the more contentious issues such as teacher effectiveness and accountability.
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.