Majority of States Say They'll Seek Waivers Under NCLB

Dozens of states say they will apply; others on fence

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A majority of states have officially signaled that they plan to seek newly offered flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act, but more than a dozen remain undecided, as state officials pore over strings the U.S. Department of Education will attach to the waivers.

Seventeen states told the Education Department by the Oct. 12 deadline that they were ready to submit their applications for a waiver by the first-round Nov. 14 deadline, and another 22 would-be applicants, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, said they would seek the flexibility during a second round in mid-February. And two states, Connecticut and Oregon, said they want waivers but didn’t indicate when they would apply.

States can still change their minds: The notices they submitted—or didn’t submit—to the department are a courtesy heads-up and are not binding.

Looking for Leeway

Thirty-nine states plus the District of Columbia have told the U.S. Department of Education that they intend to seek a waiver under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Obama administration announced late last month that it would waive cornerstone requirements of the nearly 10-year-old NCLB law, including the 2014 deadline for all students to be proficient in math and reading/language arts. In exchange, states must adopt standards for college and career readiness, focus improvement efforts on 15 percent of the most troubled schools, and craft guidelines for teacher evaluations based in part on student performance. States can’t pick and choose what parts of the law they want waived, or what conditions they will meet. ("Obama Outlines NCLB Flexibility," Sept. 28, 2011.)

Many of the conditions attached to the waivers were key pieces of last year’s $4 billion Race to the Top competition. That may help explain why 11 of the 12 Race to the Top winners, which say they’ll seek waivers, were not put off by such requirements. (For New York state, also a winner, no decisions were to be made until the state board of regents met on Oct. 17, a spokeswoman said.)

No state has yet declared it has no interest in a waiver. For most of the 11 states that did not signal their intentions to the department, interviews with officials show they are simply undecided. They are worried about the waiver conditions, how the requirements mesh with ongoing education improvement efforts, and the costs.

Utah waited until two days after the technical deadline before deciding it would apply in February.

The state was making sure there weren’t any “unintended, bad consequences,” Mark Peterson, a spokesman for the Utah education department, said as the state was mulling it’s decision.

States have plenty of time to make a decision. Although waivers could be awarded as early as January of next year, the federal department plans to accept applications on a rolling basis even into the 2012-13 school year.

Long-Sought Relief

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The administration’s plans to offer states flexibility comes as Congress has failed so far to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the No Child Left Behind law. States have been clamoring for relief as the deadline for 100 percent student proficiency by the end of the 2013-14 school year approaches, and more schools are facing sanctions.

But that doesn’t make the decision to apply for a waiver a slam-dunk in all states.

West Virginia is still meeting with stakeholders, Alaska and Wyoming are generally still analyzing the offer, and Texas is looking for any legal issues the state could face if it embraces the waiver package, officials from those states said.

In Alabama, which has focused on improving reading skills in the early grades and offering more college-level opportunities in high school, state officials want to make sure any waivers wouldn’t derail those efforts.

“We are overall pleased with the waiver flexibility, but still looking at the conditions and how they align with our current reform plans that are yielding desired results,” said state education department spokeswoman Malissa Valdes.

For Pennsylvania officials, the holdup is both practical and philosophical. State Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis is weighing the wisdom of trading one set of mandates for another, his spokesman, Timothy Eller, said.

Spotlight on No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

“In Pennsylvania, this is viewed by many as a replacement program, not a waiver program,” Mr. Eller said.

In California, state schools chief Tom Torlakson is worried about the costs of putting the various waiver conditions in place, including a provision that requires states to devise interventions for 15 percent of their lowest-performing schools.

“We are carefully examining the proposal, which would appear to cost billions of dollars to fully implement, at a time when California and many other states remain in financial crisis,” Mr. Torlakson said Sept. 23, when the waiver details were first announced. A spokesman said last week that Mr. Torlakson’s concerns remain.

Vol. 31, Issue 08, Page 18

Published in Print: October 19, 2011, as NCLB-Waiver Hopefuls Notify Education Dept. of Interest in Flexibility
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