The Obama administration’s waivers to states from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act have allowed some to back off the core goal of the law—educational equity for poor and minority students—a group of powerful House Democrats said in a sharply worded letter sent to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week.
The lawmakers are demanding that the U.S. Department of Education set a high bar for waiver renewal, a process that’s already underway. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia were granted waivers beginning in early 2012. They are set to expire at the end of the 2013-14 school year.
The letter was signed by U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, and members of the three caucuses in Congress representing minority-group lawmakers: the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, and the Asian Pacific Caucus. Together, they’re known as the “Tri-Caucus” and represent a key voting bloc among House Democrats.
The letter marks the most pointed criticism yet from inside the Beltway of the impact of the waivers on English-language learners, students in special education, and minority children, and it comes from a group of the Obama administration’s most powerful legislative allies.
“The federal role in education is historically a civil rights role, serving to protect and promote equity,” the lawmakers write. “However, we are concerned that some state policies, approved under the initial round of waivers, have not lived up to the mission.”
Specifically, the lawmakers criticize Mr. Duncan and states for the use of so-called “super subgroups,” which allow states to combine subgroups of students—the disadvantaged, minority students, English-language learners, and students in special education—into a single group for NCLB accountability purposes. But the technique could mask the dismal performance of a particular group of students, the lawmakers argue.
“These policies mean that students may slip through the cracks of averages and ambiguities,” they write.
In response to the letter, Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said in an email, “We have received the letter on Elementary and Secondary Education Act flexibility and look forward to responding. The department shares the same commitment to protecting and promoting equity for students.”
Low Bar Alleged
The lawmakers also contend that the Education Department enables states to set a low bar for graduation rates, by allowing students who graduate in five or even six years to carry the same weight for accountability purposes as a student who graduates in four. That’s an issue that Rep. Miller, who is retiring after this year, raised last year.
And they worry that students in special education and ells are being neglected by the waiver process. They want the department to release data on how those students and others are faring academically under the waivers.
They also want the department to press states on the equitable distribution of teachers, an emerging issue for the department.
Initially, the Education Department had planned to attach further strings to waiver renewal, by specifically requiring states to ensure that students in high-poverty schools are taught by effective teachers. But the department backed off that idea, instead floating the possibility of a “50-state strategy” on teacher equity that would affect both waiver and nonwaiver states. The 42 states that have waivers will instead be able to extend them through a more streamlined process.
But Rep. Miller and the Tri-Caucus members are worried that a simplified system could further water down protections for subgroup students.
“This is going to be a process where either the administration is serious about the civil rights of these children, or they’re not,” a clearly angry Mr. Miller said in an interview. If the administration fails to allow for civil rights protections, he warned, “the department is going to get their ass handed to them by members of Congress.”
But Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, had a different take.
“I agree with a lot of the stuff in that letter,” he said. “I believe we can prove what [Rep. Miller] wants us to prove. The states are the ones that developed higher standards. The states are the ones that have developed new accountability systems. We’re open to improve them.”
That said, Mr. Minnich added: “This is more just saber-rattling than anything.” While acknowledging the limited power of House Democrats, who are in the minority, Mr. Minnich said: “If George Miller wants to do something, he should see that we get a new [ESEA] law.”
Associate Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 2014 edition of Education Week as Minority-Group Lawmakers Slam NCLB Waivers’ Impact