School & District Management

Two States Revisit NCLB Tangles After Losing Waivers

By Alyson Klein — October 28, 2014 6 min read
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The only two states to lose their waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act—Oklahoma and Washington—are navigating the bumpy transition back to life under the outdated law, even as policymakers in both states are trying to regain the lost flexibility.

Oklahoma, which in August became only the second state to lose its waiver, has found itself struggling to return to the NCLB accountability system amid a host of other changes in leadership, assessment, and standards.

But the state’s chances of getting its waiver back—perhaps even this school year—improved markedly on Oct. 16, when the state’s higher education institutions ruled that its K-12 standards are rigorous enough to get students ready for college and the workforce. That’s a requirement for waiver states that aren’t participating in the Common Core State Standards, which Oklahoma ditched earlier this year.

Some experts say the question isn’t necessarily whether the state can get its waiver back—it’s whether that will happen this school year or next.

Janet Baressi, the Oklahoma state schools chief, is pushing to have the state's No Child Left Behind Act waiver reinstated.

Janet Barresi, the GOP state schools chief, is seeking to have the waiver reinstated as soon as possible. The U.S. Department of Education would say only that it’s working with the state on the issue.

Timing is crucial. Some schools in Oklahoma will have to take steps such as sending letters to parents letting them know that their child’s school isn’t making progress under the NCLB law and set aside money for professional development, if the waiver isn’t reinstated soon.

“Districts are definitely in a holding pattern,” said Shawn Hime, the executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. “The uncertainty of what’s to come is difficult for them.”

Stability Sought

What’s more, returning to the accountability system under the waiver will provide much-needed stability in a state that’s seen its share of turmoil in the past several years, district leaders say.

After rejecting the common core, Oklahoma returned to its old standards in order to give the state time to develop a new set of expectations for students.

Separately, the state has had a last-minute change in vendors for assessments scheduled to be administered this winter.

And leadership in the Oklahoma State Department of Education is also turning over: Ms. Barresi lost her primary race earlier this year, and a new chief will be in place after the election.

“We are kind of rudderless right now,” said Joe Siano, the superintendent of the 16,800-student Norman Public School district, just south of Oklahoma City. In addition to the leadership, standards, and testing changes, the state has also weathered numerous revisions to its accountability system over the past several years, he said.

“The waiver coming back into place will at least bring some continuity,” he said.

Compounding the instability problem: The state department of education hasn’t yet told schools where they fall on the NCLB law’s timetable of sanctions, which kick in for those that don’t meet achievement targets known as adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

And it’s not clear if the Oklahoma Department of Education has the capacity to figure out which schools are due for which interventions. In fact, Ms. Barresi said she’d have to add 25 or 30 new staff members and spend an additional $6 million over two years just to get the analysis done.

Still, the state education department is hoping to let schools know where they fall on the NCLB timetable by the end of the calendar year, assuming the waiver hasn’t been restored by then, said Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for the department.

Mr. Hime, for one, is keeping his fingers crossed that the waiver will be reinstated before schools have to comply with NCLB sanctions.

“The hope is that we would have an answer on the waiver prior to the AYP calculation so schools don’t start down the path of sending out letters,” he said.

Lucky Break?

Still, Oklahoma may have inadvertently ended up with the best deal possible, said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

Because the state didn’t lose its waiver until August—just before the start of the school year—districts there aren’t required to take steps such as reserving 20 percent of their Title I funding for school choice and supplemental services. Now, with the state likely to regain its waiver by the 2015-16 school year at the latest, schools are unlikely to have to abide by that provision of the NCLB law at all, which is one that many districts see as the biggest drawback of the outdated law.

What’s more, under waivers, schools singled out as among the worst performers in a state have to implement comprehensive improvement plans. But, if the waiver isn’t reinstated until 2015-16, Oklahoma’s low-performing schools could get a reprieve from those requirements, too, Ms. Hyslop said.

“Essentially, Oklahoma has a year off from most meaningful accountability,” Ms. Hyslop said.

Evergreen State Transition

The picture is very different in Washington state, which lost its waiver in April.

Standards weren’t the issue there—Washington state got into trouble because it doesn’t require districts to include student outcomes on state tests in its teacher-evaluation system.

Unlike schools in Oklahoma, schools in Washington that aren’t making AYP must comply with the Title I set-aside this school year.

The loss of control over those funds has meant programmatic cuts in the 28,000-student Tacoma Public School District, said Tracye Ferguson, the district’s director of Title I and early learning. The district had to eliminate an after-school enrichment program for struggling students, for instance.

While Tacoma parents are excited about the return of free tutoring, many were less than thrilled when they learned their child’s school hadn’t hit achievement targets.

“They were just flabbergasted,” Ms. Ferguson said. “It kind of started this, you know, panic.”

The district had to re-educate parents on the ins and outs of the NCLB law, she said.

That hasn’t been easy. The accountability picture in post-waiver Washington is even more complex than it was a couple years ago, before the waiver flexibility began.

For example, even though Washington is now technically subject to the outdated law, the state has retained aspects of the accountability system it had under the waivers, which put a premium on student growth. Schools in Tacoma have been working to make it clear to parents, in layman’s terms, that a school that is technically labeled as not meeting AYP may still be doing well when it comes to student growth, Ms. Ferguson said.

Meanwhile, the state’s largest school district—Seattle—applied for its own NCLB flexibility over the summer. If the 52,000-student district gets the go-ahead, it would be the first individual district in the country to get its own waiver.

Steep Hurdle

Approval doesn’t look likely, however. The option of a district-level waiver is reserved for local school systems in states that have made it clear they are not interested in—or able to—develop NCLB flexibility requests in line with the department’s parameters. That’s not the case in Washington, where state chief Randy Dorn is likely to try to regain the flexibility.

But unlike Oklahoma, Washington state doesn’t appear poised to get its waiver back any time soon, partly because of the political dynamics in the state.

Mr. Dorn is likely to back legislation—as he did last spring—requiring districts to incorporate state test scores into their evaluation systems, said Nathan Olson, a spokesman.

The state legislature, however, has already rejected such a proposal, in part because of opposition from the Washington Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. The union hasn’t firmed up its legislative agenda for the coming session, but it doesn’t appear to have changed its position on the issue.

“We know that a majority of our members oppose using student test scores for teacher evaluations,” said Linda Mullen, a spokeswoman for the union, in an email.

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as Two States Scramble to Find Footing After Losing Waivers


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