It's official. Texas is leaving behind George W. Bush's baby -- the No Child Left Behind education law.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Monday that he approved the application of Texas, Bush's home state, for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act. This makes Texas the 42nd state to receive permission to ditch the notorious education law's most onerous strictures.
No Child Left Behind, a signature Bush initiative, was signed into law more than a decade ago. It required standardized testing of students and a system of penalties for schools whose students scored below benchmarks chosen to demonstrate proficiency. At the time, the law was notable for both its bipartisan support -- House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) both appear in the portrait of the bill's signing -- and for dramatically expanding the federal government's reach into the nation's schools.
No Child Left Behind was primarily based on education reforms that originated in Texas. In the late-1990s, Sandy Kress, a White House official during Jimmy Carter's presidency, became interested in education and proposed an accountability plan designed to shock Dallas's schools out of their stagnation. Kress, a career politician with ties to business, called for giving schools more control over spending in exchange for consequences based on standardized test performance. These ideas became law under then-Gov. Ann Richards.
Bush, as Texas governor, renewed the law in 1995. Bush used Texas school accountability during his campaign for president, and signed No Child Left Behind into federal law a few years later.
The law expired in 2007. In 2008, President Barack Obama campaigned on freeing states from No Child Left Behind, which had been derided by states and teachers for being overly prescriptive, for using shoddy measures, and for encouraging teachers to teach to the test.
But the Obama administration could not get Congress to rewrite the law to its liking. A House bill written by Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) passed the chamber this summer, but the administration said it rolled back school accountability too much. In 2011, the Obama administration said it would allow states to apply for waivers from some of the law's strictures in exchange for compliance with key Obama education priorities: higher learning standards, teacher and principal evaluations based on students' standardized test scores, and revamped accountability systems for schools.
Under the waiver, Texas will no longer subscribe to the much-derided "Adequate Yearly Progress" system that measures school performance and requires all students to demonstrate proficiency in reading and math by the 2013-2014 school year. Instead, it will use a new accountability system that expects 100 percent of students to be proficient in reading and math by the 2019-2020 school year.
The waiver is conditional, and lasts for only one year, because Texas hasn't firmed up its teacher evaluation process. According to the waiver document, the state will submit final guidelines for educator evaluations by May 2014 and will"include student growth as a significant factor."
"There's been a perception of Texas that's disproportionate to the reality," said Andy Rotherham, a former Clinton White House education official who now runs the Washington-based consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners. "Texas became this battleground -- if you could discredit Texas, you could discredit the national No Child Left Behind policy. You'll get the same thing now. There is an outsized significance to Texas's waiver because it's Texas."
It was unclear whether Texas would win a waiver. Its initial application in September 2011 didn't seem to follow all of the administration's guidelines. But according to a government document, the state has made significant "improvements" since applying.
Those tweaks include creating a system for holding schools accountable based on the administration's guidelines for identifying the best and worst schools, devising a process for consulting with teachers to implement the waiver, and promising to support teachers in transitioning to new learning standards.
"Forty two states and the District of Columbia can't wait any longer for education reform," Duncan said in a statement. "Commissioner of Education Michael Williams has been a viable partner throughout this process and his leadership on this issue demonstrates his commitment to providing the best education possible for our children."
Williams said he visited Duncan several times to discuss the waiver. "The underlying message throughout our negotiations with the federal government has been Texans know what's best for Texas schools," Williams said in a statement. "I believe our school districts will appreciate the additional flexibility this waiver provides while also adhering to our strong principles on effective public education."
The waiver for Texas is striking when compared with Texas Gov. Rick Perry's (R) rhetoric about the federal government. In a presidential primary debate last year, Perry famously said he would shut down the U.S. Education Department -- the very agency that is now providing his state with regulatory relief.