Published Online: January 31, 2012
Published in Print: February 1, 2012, as Eyebrows Raised Over Initial NCLB Waiver Requests

Eyebrows Raised Over Initial NCLB Waiver Bids

Two key Democrats urge no easy sign-off

A pair of Democratic education leaders in Congress have raised red flags about the first batch of state applications for waivers that would give states flexibility from some requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The lawmakers—U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and U.S. Rep. George Miller, of California, the House education panel's ranking member—worry that accountability under the law's current version, the No Child Left Behind Act, will be significantly watered down if many of the applications are approved as submitted.

They're urging U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to adhere to the very high bar he says he's set for approval, and to work with states to improve their plans.

"We urge you to require from all applicants robust and meaningful accountability measures when approving requests for flexibility" under the NCLB law, the lawmakers wrote in a letterRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader to Secretary Duncan on Jan. 17.

The department decided last fall to give states relief from the much-criticized law when Congress was unable to complete a long-overdue reauthorization last year.

The waivers would give states leeway under some of the NCLB law's core tenants in exchange for embracing certain reform priorities. For instance, states could opt out of the yardstick at the heart of the law, adequate yearly progress, or AYP, if they are willing to adopt college- and career-ready standards. They also could get relief from the law's requirement that all teachers be highly qualified, meaning that they have a bachelors degree and subject-matter knowledge, but only if they are willing to craft evaluation systems that gauge teachers' effectiveness.

Thirty-nine states, plus the District of Columbia, have signaled their intention to apply for waivers, and 11 states have submitted plans. The department is planning to announce the first round of approvals this month.

Major Qualms

The lawmakers don't name specific states, but it's clear they think there needs to be big changes to nearly all the applications before the states can get the flexibility they are seeking.

For instance, at least nine of the 11 state applications would create a "super subgroup" essentially lumping together students with disabilities, English-language learners, and racial minorities, according to a report by the Center on Education Policy cited in the letter, a research and advocacy organization in Washington. Sen. Harkin and Rep. Miller are worried the needs of students in specific subgroups could get swept under the rug in that arrangement.

The lawmakers also want to make sure states emphasize graduation rates in their accountability systems.

"Low graduation rates cannot be obscured through changes in test scores or vice versa," they write.

And the lawmakers have qualms about how the states are proposing to handle teacher evaluation. At least six states that applied haven't yet adopted the specific requirements for an evaluation system spelled out in the waiver guidelines, according to an Education Week analysis cited in the letter.

Renewing the Law

In Sen. Harkin's own bill for renewing the ESEA, introduced with U.S. Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the top Republican on the education committee, he doesn't call for teacher evaluations at all, unless a district or state wants competitive grant money. But that bill is the product of bipartisan negotiations, while the letter reflects Sen. Harkin's own priorities for reauthorization, which includes teacher evaluation for everyone, an aide to Sen. Harkin aide explained.

The lawmakers are particularly interested in this first round of waivers because applications that get approved now will set the bar for future rounds, as states seek to copy successful strategies, an aide to Rep. Miller said. If a number states end up using similar accountability systems, those ideas could be incorporated into a future reauthorization of the law.

Lawmakers might be assuaged by some of the changes the Education Department has already demanded states make to their waiver applications, but it's not clear what those are—the department has refused to make public the formal feedback letters outlining those concerns that it has issued to states.

But Secretary Duncan has said he will take a rigorous approach to reviewing the applications.

"ESEA flexibility will allow states to target aid where it's needed the most, while not compromising an inch on achievement gaps," said Justin Hamilton, Mr. Duncan's spokesman, in an email. "States will have the flexibility to craft local plans for local issues, but they must address the needs of every child."

Vol. 31, Issue 19, Page 17

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