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Back to School: NCLB Waivers - Relief for Schools, Or More of the Same?

Guest Blog by Rob Levine

Rob is the founder of and He blogs about education issues and other topics at his personal blog

As the federal government's primary help for schools that educate disadvantaged youth called No Child Left Behind has become increasingly unpopular politicians are joining with educators in calling for major changes in the law or its outright repeal. The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, had earlier this year called on congress to rewrite the law in time for the start of the current school year, but Republicans in Congress, particularly the head of the House Education and Workforce Committee, John Kline from Minnesota, instead favored slow-walking the re-write, resulting in no action being taken this summer.

Duncan had warned of extreme, possibly unintended consequences of the law's mandate that all students in the nation become proficient in math and language arts resulting in judgments that this year fully half of the nation's primary and secondary schools would be declared failing, and that 82 percent of the schools would be forced into extreme restructuring next year. As a result Duncan announced earlier this summer that the department of education would begin a process of granting waivers from the law's extreme punishments if states and school districts would agree to portions of the administration's education reform agenda pushed by its Race To The Top initiative, including increasing the usage of student testing, requiring accountability and measures of teacher quality, and looking at college readiness.

In August Duncan intimated that the administration would not be giving up its goals of “accountability,” but it would relax specific rules on how schools could go about ameliorating achievement gaps between white and non-white, affluent and poor students. Little was said about changing the consequences for schools that continued to miss so-called “Adequate Yearly Progress” goals, a facet of NCLB that is surely going to be a point of contention between the administration and states and local school districts as more and more schools are declared failing.

One potential complication of waiver requests is if the administration insists on NCLB penalties such as creating more charter schools or state takeovers of schools declared failing, because many states simply do not have legislation that allows such measures. One state that has requested a wavier, Montana, would not be legally able to comply, and its legislature doesn't even meet again until 2013.

Until the administration releases guidelines for waivers next month, figuring out how it plans to judge those requests is a bit like Kremlinology or reading tea leaves. In a posting on the White House blog, Duncan wrote that “We need to be tight on the goals but loose on the means of achieving them — providing as much flexibility as possible, while maintaining meaningful accountability for improving student outcomes and closing achievement gaps.” A posting on the DOE website provided a bit more clarity, asserting that “States granted flexibility would be expected to maintain rigorous accountability, including for subgroups of students.”

Despite this opacity by the Obama administration, dozens of desperate states are lining up for waivers. Although no states have outright rejected NCLB and its Title I funds, a few have effectively nullified the law through administrative action. Idaho passed a law opting out of NCLB requirements, but reversed course after the federal government threatened to withhold Title I funding. Now South Dakota, and Idaho again, have threatened to outright defy the requirements of NCLB. In April the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction declared that she would indefinitely suspend the law's annual proficiency standards, a stance that brought an immediate threat of sanctions from secretary Duncan. Despite those threats, the Montana superintendent has reiterated the freeze, hoping that the DOE would not attempt to withhold needed Title I funds.

Finally politicians and traditional media have woken up to the fact that NCLB has not only not been an effective way to improve schools and reduce education gaps, it has actually been destructive to those goals. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton said, in his request for a waiver, that “"NCLB has imposed rigid testing requirements, many of which have harmed, not improved, the quality of students' learning experiences. It has labeled many schools wrongly, by applying invalid statistical measures." The Minneapolis Star Tribune, which has been an avid advocate for the education reformers on both its news and opinion pages, recently carried a story headlined “Unpopular 'No Child’ leaving plenty of students behind.”

At this moment it's unclear exactly how the Obama administration will apply whatever standards it comes up with in response to NCLB waiver requests, but it does seem that it will not back down from so-called accountability measures that punish schools with unreasonable remedies such as the wholesale firing of teachers and principals, along with creating more charter schools and removing local control from elected school boards. Declarations that schools would be released from these onerous results have been noticeably absent from Arne Duncan. Still, the uprising represented by so many states seeking waivers, and the outright defiance of the law in places like Idaho, Montana and South Dakota may just be the tip of the iceberg of anger at Washington for its irrational interference in educating primary and secondary children.

After all, federal Title 1 funds represented by No Child Left Behind comprise only about $14 billion of the nearly $700 billion spent annually on public primary and secondary education. Though financial times are tough for state and local governments, there just may be a limit to how much abuse they can take from a federal educational bureaucracy that wants to control and destroy working educational systems when it only contributes two percent of the funding.


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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messagi...