Texas, which has shunned the federal Race to the Top competition and the widely adopted common-core standards, has joined the waiver pack, becoming the 43rd state to receive flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act.
But the Sept. 30 waiver award, which came on the eve of the federal government shutdown, arrived only after the Lone Star State had to make major concessions to get the U.S. Department of Education to award the new leeway.
The state had to scrap its own state accountability system in favor of one that aligns with federal requirements. It also had to redo student achievement goals; now, schools must work toward 100 percent student proficiency by 2019-20. That goal was one of three options the Education Department offered states for setting new student achievement goals. It proved the least popular option.
Texas also agreed to toughen what it takes for the bottom-performing 15 percent of all Title I schools in the state, called “priority” and “focus” schools, to shed those designations. The schools must close the achievement gap or graduation rate, as applicable, by 50 percent.
After its waiver was announced, Texas’ reaction wasn’t completely celebratory.
“Successfully navigating this waiver process proved to be both lengthy and complex, but it was a task I believed necessary to bring some relief from burdensome federal mandates to our school districts,” said Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams. “The underlying message throughout our negotiations with the federal government has been Texans know what’s best for Texas schools.”
Texas was granted only a one-year waiver by Education Secretary Arne Duncan because it hasn’t finalized guidelines around its teacher-evaluation system. The state can get another year of flexibility if it finishes its system and if federal officials approve it.
Getting this extension is not a guarantee, however. Many waiver states—including three that have been placed on federal “high-risk” status—are struggling with the teacher-evaluation components of their waivers.
Previously, Texas had shunned anything with even a whiff of federal involvement in the K-12 arena, from competing in the Race to the Top contest to adopting the federally supported Common Core State Standards.
Desire for Flexibility
Texas joins Virginia and Alaska as the only states to receive a waiver that have not adopted the common core. Doing so was not a federal requirement; it was the easiest route to proving to federal officials that academic standards are college- and career-ready. Otherwise, a state’s higher education system had to attest to that.
With the original NCLB law deadline for 100 percent proficiency quickly approaching, many states—including Texas—found the opportunity for flexibility too good to pass up. Primarily, states and districts have been interested in the freedom to no longer have to set aside 20 percent of Title I funds in persistently low-performing schools for tutoring and school-choice transportation.
During his tenure, Mr. Duncan hasn’t been particularly complimentary of education in Texas. But in a statement accompanying the waiver announcement, the secretary offered a rare show of support for the Texas state schools chief.
“Commissioner of Education Michael Williams has been a viable partner throughout this process, and his leadership on this issue demonstrates his commitment to providing the best education possible for our children,” Mr. Duncan said.
With the addition of Texas, now 42 states plus the District of Columbia and eight districts in California have a waiver.
This will likely be the last of the waiver announcements for a while. The remaining states have either had their applications essentially rejected, have never applied for the flexibility, or withdrew their applications.
States without waivers are California, Illinois, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.