Blog

Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.

Education

Waivers and ESEA Renewal Get Hard Look From Senators

By Alyson Klein — February 07, 2013 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Washington

Now that the Obama administration has issued more than 30 waivers to help states get relief from parts of the No Child Left Behind Act, should Congress decide to get moving on the long-overdue reauthorization of the law, or step back for a while and allow waivers to take hold in states, and then learn from them? And which policies put in place by the waivers should lawmakers incorporate into a new version of the law?

Those were the central question facing lawmakers on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee at hearing on the waiver plans today.

It’s clear that U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, seems to think the U.S. Department of Education has overstepped its bounds in the waiver process. He held up a copy of Tennesse’s waiver document—which is about as thick as a dictionary—and said that the waiver process has become a sort of Inside Washington version of the children’s game “Mother May I?” with states begging the department for leeway.

“This simple waiver authority has turned into a conditional waiver with the [Education] Secretary having more authority to make decisions that in my view should be made locally by state and local governments,” said Alexander.

For instance, he said, the administration “pretty well wrote the law” on teacher evaluation, since the waivers call for states to evaluate educators based in part on student outcomes. That’s something Alexander—and plenty of Democrats—do not want to see in reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current version of which is the NCLB law.

Alexander acknowledged, however, that Congress had dropped the ball on reauthorizing the law, which is more than five years overdue.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who testified at the hearing, agreed, and essentially laid the blame for the waivers at lawmakers’ feet, saying he and his staff spent hundreds of hours pushing lawmakers to act, which turned out to be “fruitless.”

“I came up and met with you repeatedly to try to push a strong” reauthorization, Duncan said. Issuing waivers instead was “always, always our Plan B.” He said he stands ready to work with Congress on legislation. But first, lawmakers need to get over the dysfunction that has plagued them on just about every issue, including K-12 policy, according to Duncan.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, head of the committee, was a lot softer on the waivers. He kicked things off by thanking Duncan for “stepping into the breach” when Congress didn’t act. He likes, for example, that the waivers push states to test students in subjects other than reading and math. (Not every state is using other subjects, but some are.)

But he’s got big concerns about so-called “supersubgroups” which allow states to group together students with disabilities, English-language learners, and others. Supersubgroups weren’t part of the NCLB law, which required states to break out the performance of particular groups of students, including English-learners, racial minorities, and students in special education. But a number of states have included supersubgroups in their waiver plans.

Duncan emphasized that super subgroups can actually be helpful for some students, including those in special education, because some of them weren’t counted under a state’s “n” size and were therefore invisible under accountability plans. (N size is essentially the number of students a school has to have in a particular group—such as racial minorities—in order to get counted under a state’s accountability plan. Harkin expressed concerns about this earlier.)

Some senators indicated that they are pretty happy with how their states have fared under the waivers, including Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., whose state dreamed up a new way of tracking individual student progress. And, in a surprise statement, Harkin said he agreed with Duncan’s decision to deny Iowa’s waiver, which he said “just wasn’t good.” (Iowa’s state chief, Jason Glass, disagrees.)

But Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said his state hadn’t had as good an experience. The waivers he said, have created uncertainty in his state and left Kansas in “regulatory purgatory.”

Witnesses on a second panel were generally divided on what should happen next.

Two state chiefs who testified—Kentucky’s Terry Holliday and New York’s John King—said the waivers aren’t their first choice; they would much rather see a reauthorization sooner rather than later. An honest-to-goodness reauthorization offers predictability for states, they said.

But some good things have come out of the waivers, in their view. For instance, Holliday said the waiver made it easier for his state to transition to the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. Kentucky is arguably the farthest along on implementation of the standards.

Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, which advocates for disadvantaged and minority children, had some really big concerns about how, in her view, the waivers have obscured the performance of most students. By putting focus only on the absolute worst-performing schools, the waivers have essentially let states decide how to handle the other 85 percent she said. That doesn’t always lead to great outcomes for students, she added. Way more information in this great report released today by the Education Trust.

Andrew Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit group based in Washington, said, basically, that the waivers should be given a chance to take hold before Congress decides to upset the apple cart with a brand new law. He said his experience, until recently, as the second-in-command in the New Jersey Department of Education made him realize that swift changes in federal policy can have unintended consequences for states. That’s a different tack from what most folks in Congress have been saying, as well as many state chiefs who want the predictability they say a real reauthorization will offer, as opposed to temporary waivers.

Another tidbit: Alexander asked Duncan point-blank whether he is considering waivers for districts in states that have decided not to apply for the department’s waivers, but got turned down (for instance, California). Duncan said he’d much rather work with states on the waivers and will make a decision about district waivers down the road. In fact, however, an Education Department official said just last month that the department is considering a special ESEA waiver for eight Golden State districts.

So what’s happens next? In an interview after the hearing, Harkin said it was too early to say. He’s not sure just yet if he wants to have more hearings, or get going on a bill. And he said that while elements of the committee’s 2011 ESEA renewal bill are likely to inform the new version, the panel also will likely take into account concerns it heard about that bill. (He didn’t say this, but many in the disability community, which is close with Harkin, didn’t like that legislation one bit.)

“It’s a new Congress,” he said. “I think we need to make a fresh start on it,” possibly incorporating some of the ideas states have put into the waivers.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP