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No Child Left Behind Waivers and Reform Efforts

In 2001, President George W. Bush signed an education law, commonly referred to as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), that required states to implement standardized testing and other requirements in order to receive federal education funding. President Bush and other leaders hoped that the NCLB would improve student performance and public education across the U.S. However, the NCLB has received severe and widespread criticism for its reliance on standardized testing and for its use of sanctions against schools considered underperforming.

This article provides background information about NCLB and focuses on the waivers many states have obtained that exempt them from some of NCLB's requirements. Information about other efforts to reform NCLB is also provided, along with a link for consulting with an attorney.

See FindLaw's Curriculum Standards and Funding section for additional articles.


The Act requires states to implement student testing programs in public K-12 schools. The scores must be reported by school, by school district, and by categories such as family income level and ethnic background. NCLB also imposes corrective action upon a school that is consistently low-performing or doesn't meet improvement goals. These sanctions can include a transfer option for parents (meaning that they can transfer their child to a higher-performing school in the district); and in severe cases, teachers and staff can be replaced.

Critics note that at one point, an estimated 48 percent of all public schools in the U.S. were considered failing under the metrics of NCLB. Detractors argue that this sort of absurd result renders NCLB's standards meaningless. They also argue that rather than improve education quality, the ultimate goal of any education law, NCLB has merely incentivized "teaching to the test" through rote learning. Finally, many critics argue that NCLB's strict standards and use of sanctions doesn't sufficiently take into account the challenges that school districts with many low-income and/or English-learning students face.

See Criticism of No Child Left Behind to learn more.

NCLB Waivers

In 2011, the Department of Education invited states to apply for waivers from the NCLB. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan alludes to in his 2011 letter, the waivers are a backdoor attempt at reforming the NCLB by providing states with "flexibility" regarding its requirements. Secretary Duncan cites Congress' inability to pass a law to amend or replace the NCLB as the reason for the Department of Education taking the initiative to reform.

What the Waivers Do

Most states, with the notable exception of California, have either obtained waivers from the federal government or are applying to do so. To obtain a waiver, a state must agree to implement certain reforms, such as factoring in student test scores when evaluating a teacher's performance. Note that a Native American tribal school successfully obtained a waiver, and several California school districts are applying for them.

The waivers are intended as a way for the federal government to maintain oversight over public education goals and reforms, while providing states with more flexibility than they have under NCLB to create testing and school-improvement policies.

Other Reform Efforts

Somewhat oddly, the NCLB initiative actually expired in 2007, but its provisions -- including the controversial testing and sanctions requirements that led to states seeking waivers -- remain in effect until a replacement law is passed. Congress hasn't been able to pass such a law, a fact lamented by Secretary Duncan in his letter to the states.

However, a recent bipartisan bill has garnered attention and may represent the best hope of NCLB critics in some time. This bill would provide states with greater flexibility in deciding how to improve public K-12 education, and it would end the NCLB's strict standardized testing requirements.

How a Lawyer Can Help

If you have questions about No Child Left Behind Act waivers, such as whether your child's school is subject to such a waiver and how that might affect your child, an attorney can help. You can consult with an attorney who specializes in education law through FindLaw.

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