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Harkin, Miller to Education Secretary: Set a High Bar for Waivers

By Alyson Klein — January 25, 2012 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, any day now, is supposed to announce which states will get waivers from parts of the No Child Left Behind Act, in exchange for embracing certain education reform priorities.

But a pair of Democratic education leaders in Congress have some concerns about aspects of the 11 state applications submitted so far, and they’re urging Duncan to adhere to the very high bar he says he’ll set for approval.

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, sent a letter to Duncan on Jan. 17 outlining what they see as specific problems in the initial applications. The department has been working with states to make changes and tweaks to their approaches, but those discussions have not been made public.

“We felt the first round of applications didn’t go far enough to maintain the strong accountability approach that was expected,” a Harkin aide said. “We wanted to make sure that even though some of the first-round applications don’t look like they are there yet, [the department] would work with states to reach a high bar.”

The lawmakers don’t name specific states, but it’s clear they think there need to be big changes to nearly all the applicaitons before they’re approved.

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, a research and advoacy organization in Washington. Harkin and Miller are worried the concerns of specific subgroups could get swept under the rug in that arrangement.

•The lawmakers want to make sure states really emphasize graduation rates in their accountability systems. “Low graduation rates cannot be obscured through changes in test scores or vice-versa,” they write. A report from the Alliance for Excellence in Education, in Washington, questioned whether states are really doing a good job of ensuring that graduation rates count for accountability purposes.

•Teacher evaluation is another area of concern. At least six states that applied haven’t yet adopted the specifics spelled out in the waiver guidelines, according to an Education Week analysis. And a report by the Center for American Progress, in Washington, also questions whether states have the capacity to deliver on the evaluation portion of the applications.

It’s notable that Harkin would have an issue with states’ handling of the teacher-evaluation requirement. His own bill, introduced with U.S. Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the top Republican on the education committee, doesn’t call for 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 Harkin’s own priorities for reauthorization, which includes teacher evaluation for everyone, a Harkin aide explained. (Harkin’s original bill did ask all districts to craft evaluations, but that language got jettisoned to garner GOP support for the measure.)

Why so much focus on this first round of waivers? The applications that get approved now will set the bar for future rounds, as states seek to copy successful strategies, a Miller aide said. And, if a bunch of states end up using similar accountability systems, that could be incorporated into a future reauthorization of the law.

Of course, the lawmakers might be assuaged by some of the changes the Education Department has already demanded states make to their waiver applications—but unfortunately, we don’t know what those changes entailed. The department refuses to make public the formal feedback letters it has issued to states, which outline the department’s concerns and ask for changes.

Duncan’s reponse to the lawmakers’ letter? He promises that no child will be left, well, behind:

“ESEA flexibility will allow states to target aid where its needed the most while not compromising an inch on achievement gaps,” said Justin Hamilton, 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.”