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Georgia gets No Child Left Behind waiver
10 states allowed flexibility on laws requirements
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Georgia is one of 10 states that will be freed from the strict and sweeping requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, giving the state leeway to improve how it prepares and evaluates students.

President Obama made a formal announcement Thursday afternoon.

A total of 28 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have signaled that they, too, plan to seek waivers - a sign of just how vast the law's burdens have become as a big deadline nears.

No Child Left Behind requires all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Obama's action strips away that fundamental requirement for those approved for flexibility, provided they offer a viable plan instead.

Under the deal, the states must show they will prepare children for college and careers and set new targets for improving achievement among all students, reward the best-performing schools and focus help on the ones doing the worst.

School officials in Hall County praised the move by saying it would allow teachers the flexibility to prepare students for life beyond graduation.

"We are very pleased the waiver was accepted," said Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville City Schools.

Dyer said the changes would allow school districts to be "forward thinking and not just focused on one test."

"It will be a healthy measure that will look more at the whole child rather than just one aspect,' she said.

"Teachers teach to what they're held accountable for," she said. "When you make it a broader ... accountability, the teacher will address things more holistically and less on one single measure."

"It's going to be a very positive step forward," said Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield, who calls the new measures a "more common-sense approach" to measuring student progress.

The new approach will move toward a series of metrics aimed at determining if students are leaving school "college and career ready," as Schofield put it.

Proponents for the No Child policy have argued that critics don't want accountability. But Schofield said accountability is "paramount."

"Let's have accountability that's meaningful," he said.

The news is expected to affect schools immediately, the superintendent said.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools that don't meet requirements for two years or longer face increasingly tough consequences, including busing children to higher-performing schools, offering tutoring and replacing staff.

As the deadline approaches, more schools are failing to meet requirements under the law, with nearly half not doing so last year, according to the Center on Education Policy.

Center officials said that's because some states today have harder tests or have high numbers of immigrant and low-income children, but it's also because the law requires states to raise the bar each year for how many children must pass the test.

In states granted a waiver, students will still be tested annually. But starting this fall, schools in those states will no longer face the same prescriptive actions spelled out under No Child Left Behind. A school's performance will also probably be labeled differently.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, too, said the waiver gives Georgia "the flexibility we need to pursue our goals of student achievement."

Georgia's State School Superintendent John Barge joined Obama at the White House for the announcement Thursday.

"No longer will we be bound by the narrow definitions of success found in No Child Left Behind," Barge said in a statement. "We will now be able to hold schools accountable and reward them for the work they do in all subjects with all students."

In September, Obama called President George W. Bush's most-hyped domestic accomplishment an admirable but flawed effort that hurt students instead of helping them.

He said action was necessary because Congress failed to update the law despite widespread bipartisan agreement that it needs fixing. Republicans have charged that by granting waivers, Obama was overreaching his authority.

No Child Left Behind was primarily designed to help the nation's poor and minority children and was passed a decade ago with widespread bipartisan support. It has been up for renewal since 2007.

But lawmakers have been stymied for years by competing priorities, disagreements over how much of a federal role there should be in schools and, in the recent Congress, partisan gridlock.

For all the cheers that states may have about the changes, the move also reflects the sobering reality that the United States is not close to the law's original goal: getting children to grade level in reading and math.

Critics today say the 2014 deadline was unrealistic, the law too rigid and that it led to teaching to the test, and too many schools feel they are labeled as "failures."

The pressure will probably still be on the lowest-performing schools in states granted a waiver, but mediocre schools that aren't failing will probably see the most changes because they will feel less pressure and have more flexibility in how they spend federal dollars, said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.

The populous states of Pennsylvania, Texas and California are among those that have not said they will seek a waiver, although they could still do so later.

The U.S. Department of Education is expected to highlight the specifics of the plan in a conference call with the public today.

Obama, in a later announcement, said No Child Left Behind is five years overdue for a rewrite. He said the waivers, and their return of academic control to the 10 states including Georgia, were a sign that his administration was serious about "helping our children reach their potential."

"The best ideas aren't going to come from Washington alone," Obama said in a statement. "Our job is to harness those ideas, and to hold states and schools accountable for making them work."

The other nine states to receive the waivers are Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

The only state that applied for the flexibility and did not get it, New Mexico, is working with the administration to get approval, a White House official said.

Some conservatives viewed Obama's plan not as giving more flexibility to states, but as imposing his vision on them.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, said the president allowed "an arbitrary timeline" to dictate when Congress should get the law rewritten and set a dangerous precedent by granting the education secretary "sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan maintained this week that the administration "desperately" wants Congress to fix the law.

Kline released a draft of a Republican-written bill to update the law, earning the ire of California Rep. George Miller, the committee's ranking Democrat. Miller said such partisanship "means the end" to No Child Left Behind reform in this Congress.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate committee with jurisdiction over education, has said he believes it "would be difficult to find a path forward" without a bipartisan bill in the House.

Associated Press contributed to this story.