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Obama Administration Grants NCLB Waivers to Eleven States, California Still Pondering Alternative Waiver Request

March 1, 2012

With some fanfare, President Barack Obama announced on Feb. 9 that ten states that have agreed to implement Obama Administration-backed reforms involving standards and accountability will receive waivers allowing flexibility from the burdensome mandates of the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The ten states approved for flexibility are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

An NCLB waiver request from an eleventh state – New Mexico – was granted by the Obama Administration on Feb. 15. Another 20-some states are considering applications for similar federal waivers.

“After waiting far too long for Congress to reform No Child Left Behind, my Administration is giving states the opportunity to set higher, more honest standards in exchange for more flexibility,” said President Obama.

The administration's decision to provide waivers followed extensive efforts to work with Congress to rewrite NCLB. In March 2010, the administration submitted a “blueprint for reform” to Congress and has met extensively with Republican and Democratic legislators.

To get flexibility from NCLB, the federal Department of Education requires that states must adopt and have a plan to implement college and career-ready standards. They must also create comprehensive systems of teacher and principal development, evaluation and support that include factors beyond test scores, such as principal observation, peer review, student work, or parent and student feedback.

States receiving waivers no longer have to meet 2014 targets set by NCLB but they must set new performance targets for improving student achievement and closing achievement gaps. They also must have accountability systems that recognize and reward high-performing schools and those that are making significant gains, while targeting rigorous and comprehensive interventions for the lowest-performing schools. Under the state-developed plans, all schools will develop and implement plans for improving educational outcomes for underperforming subgroups of students. State plans will require continued transparency around achievement gaps, but will provide schools and districts greater flexibility in how they spend Title I federal dollars.

But the news from Washington received a cool reception in Sacramento, with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson expressing his unhappiness with No Child Left Behind in any form, and sounding uncertain as to whether California will decide to seek a waiver.

Torlakson said “California has rejected No Child Left Behind as a broken system that has not worked for our schools or our students. While our state continues to weigh its options regarding a waiver, this much is clear: one top-down decade is enough. The law's failures should prompt a thorough reassessment of the federal role in education, not merely the substitution of one set of inflexible requirements for another.”

Torlakson added, “Our schools are making great strides — even in a time of terrible budget choices. They deserve relief that does not require them to slow or reverse their progress with no assurance of stability for the long term.”

The State Board of Education could clarify the state’s position regarding an NCLB waiver at next week’s meeting of the SBE (March 7-8). A draft letter from the SBE to the Obama Administration’s Acting Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Yudin proposes a “state-defined waiver” (as opposed to the federally-proposed waiver outlined by Yudin at January’s SBE meeting). The draft SBE letter references the SBE’s “grave concerns about the fiscal and legal commitments that the (federally-proposed) waiver package will require of our state” and adds that “our current fiscal condition makes it virtually impossible to implement all of the (federal) waiver requirements in every district and school in the state.” The draft SBE letter seeks a state-defined waiver under which “schools and LEAs will no longer be identified for improvement to rand will no longer be subject to improvement sanctions, including the requirement to reserve funds for professional development, Supplemental Education Services (SES) or choice-related transportation. These funds will then be available for other Title I appropriate activities.”

It remains to be seen whether the SBE will formally adopt the language in the draft letter, or opt for a different approach in seeking a federal NCLB waiver from the Obama Administration. And it also remains to be seen what sort of response the Obama Administration might have to California’s “state-defined” waiver proposal, after the Obama Administration has granted waivers to several other states (which have at least officially complied with the Obama Administrations conditions for a waiver.)

Source:  U.S. Department of Education, California Department of Education, EdBrief staff.