NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam says he was happy to join President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony Friday as the president unveiled plans to let states opt out of some of the toughest provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"Some of you might be saying, 'We heard you in Washington introducing the president. Last time we checked, y'all were in different parties and didn't quite see the world the same way. What's up with that?'" Haslam told attendees at a state economic development conference later in the day.
"To be straightforward with you, there's nothing we're doing in Tennessee right now as important as improving education," he said.
Earlier Friday, Republican Haslam introduced Obama, a Democrat, in the White House East Room for the announcement. The landmark No Child Left Behind law was passed when George W. Bush was president.
"As a Republican governor, I might not always agree with this administration on some policy issues or maybe even the role of federal government," Haslam said when introducing Obama. "But when there are things we can work on together, then we should. And this is one of those issues we simply can work together on."
Obama announced states could apply for waivers on a major provision of No Child Left Behind that requires school proficiency in math and reading by 2014, provided the states meet certain conditions.
"We're going to let states, schools and teachers come up with innovative ways to give our children the [skills] to compete for the jobs of the future," Obama said. "Because what works in Rhode Island may not be the same thing that works in Tennessee."
Haslam said at the White House that he looks forward to "the federal government narrowing its role in education and allowing Tennessee the flexibility to abide by its own rigorous standards."
"Education decisions are best made at the state and local levels," Haslam said.
Tennessee applied in July for a waiver from the proficiency provisions, arguing that moves last year to raise education standards and link teacher tenure to performance showed the state was aggressively moving to improve.
In 2010, Tennessee won $500 million in the federal Race to the Top competition among states enacting education reform.
Not all Republicans were happy about Obama's actions, including U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
"The good news is that Tennessee shouldn't have any problem getting a waiver, because what the president wants, the state is already doing," Alexander said in a statement.
"The bad news is that the president is turning the education secretary into a national school board by imposing new federal mandates that Congress would not do through legislation and that states ought to be deciding for themselves."
Tennessee Senate Speaker pro tem Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he liked "the idea of giving more latitude to the states."
"Anyone with common sense" knows that some of No Child Left Behind Act's proficiency standards "were not realistic," he said.
Haslam later told reporters that "Tennessee did the right thing and set the bar higher," but he noted that, under No Child Left Behind, "we're on a path where 100 percent of our schools weren't going to meet the standards."
The governor said state officials have been talking with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan over the last week "about what their criteria are and where Tennessee stacks up."
"They obviously can't guarantee that [waiver], but I think they feel really good about what we've submitted to them and what we're doing in Tennessee. Don't have any final word, but I feel good about our position," Haslam said.
He acknowledged his White House invitation may have had an ulterior purpose when inviting him to stand with the president.
"Politically, it doesn't hurt to have a Republican governor up there with him, to be truthful about it," Haslam said.