States Unsure About NCLB Waivers
posted by: Ruthie | June 21, 2011, 03:29 PM   

As the 2014 NCLB deadline for states to get their students to proficiency on state math and reading standards rapidly approaches, many states are hitting the panic button and seeking regulatory relief from the Department of Education. However, despite the looming mandates and deadlines, the idea of blanket waivers faces strong opposition from states that argue the relief could be more than they bargained for, forcing states to adopt Obama-backed reforms in exchange for waivers.

Some states have even questioned Duncan's authority to offer leeway of the accountability requirements. While details on the waiver proposal remain unclear, it seems certain that states will have to embrace an all-or-nothing package of reforms from the Department of Education in exchange for critical regulatory relief. "This is not an a la carte menu," stated Duncan. Assistant Secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, Carmel Martin, added, "The state department would aim to create a framework. We don't want a blanket waiver. On the other hand, we don't want individualized processes from every state." Clearly the Obama administration is using the delay in NCLB reauthorization to play into their quest for state-based reform.

While a bipartisan group of senators has been regularly meeting to discuss reauthorization for months, they have yet to produce a comprehensive bill. The House panel is not expected to tackle the law's core accountability issues until the fall, after the administration's goal of completing the bill by August.

States are understandably hesitant to take on federally mandated reforms, especially in cases which would contradict their current plans for a public education overhaul. For example, Kentucky would be especially interested in a waiver that would move the federal accountability measure closer to the state's own system for gauging school's progress. Similarly, Kansas Commissioner of Education, Diane Debacker, said she's confident her state will be able to meet Mr. Duncan's conditions for waivers; but if any of those conditions required Kansas it change its laws, that would be more difficult since her state's legislature won't be back in session until next year – a problem for most states. In May, Kansas was denied a waiver from the department to hold its student-achievement targets at 2009 – 2010 levels as it transitions to the common core. Arkansas was also denied a similar waiver.

Even states granted these waivers are wary of the strings attached to the agreements. Robert Scott, the commissioner of education in Texas, expressed concern that the department might waive pieces of the law that are working well for some Texas schools, such as the requirement that underperforming schools offer free tutoring. He also admitted uncertainty as to whether the department was on firm legal standing in granting waivers.

Contrarily, Indiana Superintendent and Chief for Change Tony Bennett agrees with Duncan's decisions. "I think states should be able to, and be required to, show that they are willing to pursue strong reforms in exchange for federal flexibility." He continued to say that any waiver plan should put a premium on states that are willing to more aggressively target improving student growth as measured by test scores and retool their teacher-evaluation systems to focus not on inputs, such as advanced degrees a teacher may have, but instead on outcomes, such as test scores.

Lawmakers are also wary of the idea of waivers. House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline said that while he favors the flexibility, the plan "might muddy the waters for districts." Even Ranking Member George Miller expressed qualms about the policy, saying, "I just hope people don't see waivers as an escape route. My hope is that we don't go with plan B [waivers], when I think plan A [reauthorization] is essential."

While Secretary Duncan agreed that he'd rather see lawmakers act swiftly on reauthorization, he is no stranger to granting waivers, exchanging them 315 times his first year in office to various states.

What do you think about the NCLB waiver controversy?
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