"After waiting far too long for Congress to reform No Child Left Behind, my administration is giving states the opportunity to set higher, more honest standards in exchange for more flexibility," said President Obama, who wants legislators to come up with a different approach to address the nation's educational needs.
Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), all of the nation's public schoolchildren were supposed to be scoring proficient or higher on standardized tests by 2014. The bill, a cornerstone of the George W. Bush administration education policy, has been widely criticized for its emphasis on test performance in language arts and math, which many say has come at the expense of other subjects.
Opponents also say NCLB did not give districts and states enough freedom in how they could intervene in failing schools.
Under New Jersey's waiver proposal, the state will identify "priority" schools, the state's lowest performers, which could be subject to leadership change, other corrective action, and possibly closure. Of the schools tentatively identified, the highest concentration was in Camden.
The state also would name "focus" schools - those with low graduation rates and achievement gaps between students of different backgrounds and races that would work toward improving.
Identified as well will be "reward" schools with high proficiency or progress rates that will be recognized for their achievement.
Embracing the federal approval, Gov. Christie said Thursday: "This is not about Democrats or Republicans; it is about pursuing an agenda in the best interest of our children whose educational needs are not being met, and those who are getting a decent education but deserve a great one."
New Jersey's plan, however, has its detractors, including those who say it still relies too much on test scores and is not clear on what the improvements will cost and, if they prove to require funding, where the money will come from.
Some also said the state already had the tools to move for more change in troubled districts, but did not use them to the extent it could.
Officials with the Education Law Center, which has represented several of the state's urban, poor districts, have said that under the state's existing Quality Single Accountability Continuum process, the Christie administration had the power, well over a year ago, to intervene in the Camden City schools and to assign outside experts with the district to oversee improvement in key areas. The administration, however, opted not to do so.
Instead, the governor has advocated other options, such as opening more charter schools, allowing private companies to operate schools, and other measures that have yet to get legislative approval, including corporate-funded scholarships and limits on teacher tenure.
Stan Karp, director of the law center's Secondary Reform Project, on Thursday called New Jersey's waiver "essentially a blank check, without significant funding, for Gov. Christie's 'reform agenda' of massive increases in testing and state intervention in local schools and districts."
The Christie administration says its approved waiver plan calls for no additional standardized tests.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, endorsed parts of the waiver plan Thursday, but said the state was still focusing too heavily on standardized test scores in teacher evaluations. The union also objected to inserting the governor's legislative wish list - weakening teacher tenure and seniority, creating scholarships, and increasing charters - into the waiver application.
"There is no research to support that these measures have anything to do with improving struggling schools," according to NJEA spokeswoman Dawn Hiltner.
A stronger endorsement came from Marie S. Bilik, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association. She said the measures called for in the state's waiver plan would allow for broader opportunities for education improvement and advancing achievement based on assistance and support rather than sanctions.
"We are particularly pleased that funding will be available for implementation of a new teacher-evaluation process," Bilik said. "The evaluation system, as envisioned, will be a tool to improve instruction and learning and will be key to other education reforms."
The proposal also calls for principal evaluations.
Gloria Bonilla Santiago, founder of the LEAP Academy Charter School in Camden, called overdue the move away from NCLB constraints.
"The end of No Child Left Behind does not signal the end of accountability in New Jersey classrooms," she said. "It just means that we shift the model and create an environment that allows students and teachers of diverse backgrounds to be accountable for learning through a growth model rather than through teaching to the test."
Pennsylvania's top educator said the waiver offer did not make sense, in part because of political realities.
"What would happen if we had a new administration or a new law" next year, asked state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, who worked in the U.S. Department of Education during Bush's administration.
Tomalis said Pennsylvania was discussing alternatives to the waiver with the Obama administration.
"No one is saying that we should lower standards," Tomalis said. "But you could have a very different federal law in 18 months."
Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841, firstname.lastname@example.org,
or @ritagiordano on Twitter.