NCLB Waivers Will Have Strings Attached

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan finally said this weekend what has been implied for months. To wit, he is prepared to issue waivers to states and districts from No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requirements if Congress is unable to make significant changes to the federal K–12 education law this year.

But the big news from the otherwise blindingly obvious development was that Duncan said that such waivers would be granted in exchange for reforms aligned to the Obama administration’s priorities. Having used the carrot of billions of dollars in stimulus money to prompt state reforms through the Race to the Top (RttT) grant competition, Duncan will now do the same through a relief for reform scheme.

Congress in general isn’t happy about this plan: Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) called it “premature,” but Republicans are going to be even more displeased. Many of them consider the RttT program a unilateral executive branch partial reauthorization of ESEA, and this latest plan to institute their education vision through a regulatory quid pro quo is bound to draw even more scrutiny. Educators, too, surely didn’t envision relief from NCLB’s more onerous requirements to be replaced with other, new hoops to jump through.

Waivers are seen as increasingly needed as it becomes ever more clear that nearly every school is going to miss the 100 percent student proficiency goal by the law’s 2013–14 deadline. In addition, the widespread adoption of the common core state standards means that states are now operating on a two-track system as they teach and test students on one set of standards while trying to implement an entirely new set of standards.

The next big question is whether the administration’s reform demands for waivers will be the same or even more expansive than what was required under RttT. If not, the RttT winners and those states eligible for round three grants are likely shoo-ins for waivers. It also means that the lowest scoring states in the RttT competition—Alabama, Montana, Mississippi, Maine, Washington, Nebraska, and Missouri—shouldn’t expect regulatory relief without some major adjustments.

Montana is an interesting situation. The state superintendent didn’t ask the secretary for an NCLB waiver but directly informed him that the state would not be abiding by the law’s requirements to increase their accountability goals for this coming school year. To date, there has been no public response to this action by the U.S. Department of Education. In the end, it might be better not to ask for flexibility but simply assert it.