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Waivers from NCLB Proficiency Requirement – What it Means and What People Are Saying

October 31, 2011

President Obama declared that states who were willing to set higher standards, revamp teacher evaluations, and overhaul their lowest performing schools can apply for waivers from certain parts of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), including the 2014 100% proficiency deadline. The waivers have been discussed for a few months, given that Congress has not come to an agreement on how to rewrite the NCLB law, which is past due for reauthorization. One of the big points of contention was that in the original law, children in every state had to be 100% proficient by 2014 under state-determined standards in reading and math, or states risked punishment and requirements to “fix” their schools by various means.

Since the law hasn’t been reauthorized and the prospects for that happening on a bipartisan basis grow increasingly dimmer as we enter an election year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama felt waivers based on states committing to certain ideas of high standards were the only way to provide relief to the states. This isn’t the first time the President rewarded states that promised to change their standards, teacher evaluations, or reform policies. Race to the Top was a grant competition based on states willing to push for reform, although the best intentions did not bring about the best results.

The big question is whether or not granting these waivers, but only for states that pledge to pursue the President’s policy reform agenda by agreeing to various conditions not part of the statutory waiver process, is legal. It is legal for Secretary Duncan to issue waivers, but it is unclear if they can be tied to reforms not authorized by Congress.

Debate will continue on this issue, with some education reformers supporting the efforts, and some opposing them.

Chiefs for Change, a coalition of state school chiefs working to advance an education reform agenda in their states, support the waivers set forth by the administration. State Superintendents within this group include Deborah Gist of Rhode Island, Gerard Robinson of Florida, and Tony Bennett of Indiana. This group issued a statement in support of the Administration’s decision. “We applaud both the flexibility waivers will grant states and districts and the reforms the Administration’s waiver policy will reward.” Because many of the states in this coalition have led the charge for education reform and have already reached many of the goals laid out by Sec. Duncan, they are pleased not to be penalized under the old NCLB law. While they see it as a chance to move forward with the reauthorization of ESEA without worry about 100% proficiency, others see waivers as a detriment to education reform.

Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, believes that issuing these waivers will actually detract from the education reform bills House Republicans are currently advancing to re-issue NCLB and improve charter schools. He issued a statement after the waiver announcement and says his main concern is that the “proposal could mean less transparency, new federal regulations, and greater uncertainty for students, teachers, and state and local officials.”

While Rep. Kline and other Republicans understand the urgent need to reform the education system in the United States, they are fearful of what will happen to these plans for reform if the federal government continues to create requirements, incentives, and additional regulations and burdens on states and superintendents. He believes, as do others, that it’s a controversial plan with no positive side effects now or long-term.

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) wrote an op-ed, which appeared in the New York Times on Tuesday, September 27, echoing the concerns of Rep. Kline that the federal government is putting too many regulations on states. Earlier this month, Sen. Alexander, and other Republicans introduced a set of bills to reauthorize NCLB that would put more responsibility on the states to reform education and be held accountable for results. Many legislators believe that now is the time to focus on working together to reauthorize ESEA to move education forward in the U.S. and not to worry about state-specific agendas.