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Education Reporter

NCLB Waivers Come with Strings Attached
On September 22 the Obama Administration released a plan that will allow qualifying states to receive waivers exempting them from compliance with key components of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

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As it stands, NCLB requires all state schools to reach 100% proficiency in math and reading/language arts by 2014. Under NCLB, standards get higher and higher each year, yet many schools are not able to meet the deadlines. The schools that do not make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) face costly sanctions. According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, more than 80% of schools will not make AYP this year and will be considered "failing" under NCLB.

Each state that wants a waiver must apply for it, and its application must prove that it will comply with the requirements set by the Department of Education. These requirements include: adopting college-and career-ready standards tied to state tests, adopting a differentiated accountability system that focuses on the bottom 15% of schools, and creating guidelines for a teachers-and principal-evaluation system based on student growth to be used for personnel decisions.

In order for states to get the waivers by the end of this school year, they will have to meet one of two application deadlines, either November 14th or mid-February. Even if a state is too late to apply for a waiver, it can still request the permission of the Department of Education to maintain current year proficiency targets instead of raising them over the next several years as NCLB requires.

NCLB waivers are not a free "out" — strings are attached. One of the conditions is troublingly ambiguous. States must show that they will create new evaluation guidelines for teachers and principals to "inform personnel decisions," but no explanation of exactly what that means is provided. It is unclear whether "personnel decisions" means hiring and firing, or something else.

The most problematic requirement is that schools must agree to apply "college-and-career-ready standards." These standards employ the same structure and language used in the Common Core Initiative, which is an attempt to consolidate state curricula into one set of standards for every school in the nation.

States will be judged not only on whether or not they have adopted"college-and-career-readiness" standards, but also on their plans to implement those standards. States will be expected to train teachers how to teach the new standards, and to ensure that those standards become the main thrust of each lesson.

Senator Lamar Alexander, former Secretary of Education, sponsored a bill early in September that would have stopped the Department of Education from issuing waivers with such conditions attached. He spoke on the Senate floor the day the waiver plan was released. "The restraint I am asking for is that the Secretary not use this occasion, when the states are over a barrel, to become a national school board and begin to impose on the states those requirements that Congress would not do through legislation and that states ought to be deciding for themselves."

Other Congressmen are also questioning the authority of the Obama Administration and Department of Education to grant waivers dependent on state compliance with federal standards. Senator Marco Rubio explained his objections in a letter to Arne Duncan. "This initiative is an overstep of authority that undermines existing law, and violates the constitutional separation of powers. The responsibility for legislating lies with Congress, and forcing policy reforms through NCLB waivers violates this most basic of constitutional structures. . . . I am concerned that the administration's requirements for granting a waiver from NCLB would entail states having to adopt a federally-approved college and career ready curriculum: either the national Common Core curriculum standards, or another federally-approved equivalent. I am also concerned that the U.S. Department of Education has created through its contractors, national curriculum materials to support these Common Core standards. Such activities are unacceptable; they violate three existing laws: NCLB, the Department of Education Organization Act, and the General Education Provisions Act. All three laws prohibit the federal government from creating or prescribing national curriculum."

In another letter to the Secretary of Education, Representative John Kline wrote that he "cannot support a process that grants the secretary of education sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers." Representative Spencer Bachus also expressed his position in a letter to Arne Duncan, saying that it is "highly inappropriate" for waivers to be granted only if schools adopt "various priorities of the Department and Administration, including Common Core Standards."

According to Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, some states will wait for Congress to reauthorize NCLB because they believe that the conditions attached to the waivers are an inappropriate use of power on the part of the President and his Secretary of Education.

The American Association of School Administrators issued this statement: "If we all agree that the regulations that are to be waived are onerous and an impediment to real change in our schools, then they should be waived for all schools, not just the ones in states that apply for and receive the waivers."

(Education Week, 9-28-11 and 10-5-11; blogs.edweek.org, 9-28-11 and 9-29-11; www.canadaviews.ca, 9-22-11)
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