President Obama unveiled the most significant changes to U.S. education policy in a decade, using his executive authority to give states more flexibility to opt out of some provisions of the controversial No Child Left Behind program that was a signature initiative of President George W. Bush.
"We can't let another generation of young people fall behind," Mr. Obama told an audience of education leaders in the East Room of the White House.
Mr. Obama expressed frustration with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who have bickered about the best way to improve the increasingly unpopular program championed 10 years ago by Bush and liberal Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. Mr. Bush signed the law in early 2002 at an Ohio high school in the congressional district of House Speaker John Boehner, who was then chairman of the House panel overseeing responsible for education.
"Our kids only get one shot at a decent education. They cannot afford to wait any longer. So, given that Congress cannot act, I am acting," Mr. Obama said.
The president tied the need to improve U.S. education to his efforts to jumpstart the struggling economy.
"We are in the midst of an enormous economic challenge," Mr. Obama said,"the most important thing we can do is make sure that our kids are prepared for this new economy."
Mr. Obama noted that the United States is ranked 16th in world for the percentage of young people who earn a college degree.
"Today, our kids trail too many other countries in math, in science, in reading. And that's true, by the way, not just in inner-city schools, not just among poor kids; even among what are considered our better-off suburban schools we're lagging behind where we need to be," the president said.
Most states are expected to apply for the waiver, which would give them more control over how they deal with troubled schools.
Mr. Obama emphasized that the waiver would not lower standards, but would in fact raise them because to get the waiver the standards would have to be raised. And he said the current law perversely encourages schools to lower their standards so they do not miss their mandated goals.
"These problems have been obvious to parents and educators all over the country for years now," Mr. Obama said.