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Is Relief From NCLB a Step in the Right Direction?

By Alyson Klein — December 27, 2010 3 min read
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The new Congress hasn’t even gotten to Washington yet, but already, lots of folks are guessing that it might be tough to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act next year. And education organizations (like the National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators) really want to see relief from the parts of the law they say are unworkable or outdated (like the highly qualified teacher provisions, and that 2014 deadline for making all kids proficient on state tests.)

But giving districts wiggle room on No Child Left Behind’s requirements would hurt the chances for reauthorization and just generally create a messy renewal process, according to a survey of Beltway Insiders and other edu-smarty-pants.

About 57 percent of those surveyed said that a series of departmental waivers on key parts of the law isn’t a viable alternative to a real-honest-to-goodness reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the NCLB law.

And 75 percent said that waivers would slow momentum for reauthorization, while only 10 percent thought it could help speed things along. Fifteen percent said it wouldn’t make a difference.

Here were some of the insiders’ comments on the idea of doing ESEA waivers:

“This is a horrible idea. Once Congress starts doing ESEA piecemeal, the statute will
be ripe for edits yearly.”

“It’s a stop‐gap. It will lead to a fractured law and splintered implementation. It will
create a mess.”

But another insider said: “Better to get something done than to keep the current—and increasingly nonresponsive—structure in place.”

Still, the insiders say that waivers seem likely to happen in a number of areas.

For instance:

On the requirement that teachers be highly qualified (meaning have state certification and a degree in the subject they teach): 76 percent of those surveyed thought the Secretary would offer flexibility in this area, as opposed to 18 percent who said he won’t. But only 53 percent thought flexibility on teacher provisions is a good idea, as opposed to 47 percent who say it’s not.

On the goal of requiring all kids to be proficient by 2014: 71 percent thought Duncan might offer some leeway here, while 24 percent said he won’t. And 53 percent think giving some wiggle room here is a good idea as opposed to 47 percent who said it isn’t.

On mandating tutoring for kids in schools that fail to meet the law’s achievement targets: Fifty-nine percent expected some leeway here, but just 24 percent think it’s a good idea.

But folks didn’t seem to think the department was likely to offer flexibility on implementing specific turnaround models for schools improvement. Just 12 percent of insiders surveyed expected that would happen, as opposed to 82 percent who said it wouldn’t.

The waiver questions are part of just the latest in a series of surveys by Andrew Rotherham (of Bellwether Education Partners and the Eduwonk blog) and John Bailey, who served as a top education aide in President George W. Bush’s White House. The two have asked more than 30 state and federal folks-in-the-know what they think about major issues likely to inform K-12 education policy.

This work is part of a project for Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting organization that is a non-lobbying subsidiary of Dutko Worldwide. The survey is part of a monthly, subscription-based product. Rotherham wrote about it here, and we wrote about it here.

And there’s pushback on the idea of regulatory relief from groups like Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that supports Democrats who favor policies like expanded charter schools and merit pay, which thinks the organizations have gone too far in their requests.

You can check out DFER’s full response to the NEA and AASA proposals here. But in a nutshell, they say that the requests would water down some key parts of the law that have already been agreed on (like a grad rate calculation) or are unworkable.