Obama's No Child Left Behind Package Offers Waivers In Exchange For Teacher Evaluations, Standards

Obama To Lay Out No Child Left Behind Waiver 'Flexibility'

States that want out of specific No Child Left Behind provisions must adapt four reforms that mirror the administration's legislative priorities, President Barack Obama will announce Friday morning.

"To help states, districts and schools that are ready to move forward with education reform, our administration will provide flexibility from the law in exchange for a real commitment to undertake change," Obama said in a statement released by the White House Thursday. "The purpose is not to give states and districts a reprieve from accountability, but rather to unleash energy to improve our schools at the local level."

On Thursday, the White House circulated materials explaining that the administration will offer a "flexibility package."

The No Child Left Behind law, passed by Congress a decade ago during the George W. Bush administration, requires regular standardized testing and the disaggregation of educational data by subgroup. It also states that just about 100 percent of students must reach proficiency in math and reading by 2014. As the deadline has approached, an increasing number of schools in each state have been labeled as "failing" under No Child Left Behind, in part because the reporting model focuses on raw scores, not improvement in scores. "Failing" schools face escalating consequences. States such as Montana and Idaho have resisted the ever-increasing performance targets, saying the law strains their capacities and leads to an overly broad portrayal of schools as underperforming.

In light of those concerns, a White House fact sheet stated, the administration will allow states to request "flexibility through waivers of specific provisions" of No Child Left Behind, including the timeline for proficiency; "flexibility regarding school improvement and accountability requirements," which will allow states to set their own consequences for so-called failing schools; and "flexibility related to the use of federal education funds." Rural districts will have more freedom.

A state that requests these waivers, the fact sheet said, will have to show that:
  • It has already "adopted college- and career-ready standards in reading/language arts and mathematics" and administer "tests aligned" with these standards. The fact sheet does not detail what exactly such standards would entail, although U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has previously said states that haven't adapted the Common Core State Standards will not be barred from requesting waivers.
  • It has set systems "of differentiated recognition, accountability and support," which includes turnaround plans targeted at the lowest 5 percent of the states' schools.
  • It is "evaluating and supporting teacher and principal effectiveness" with a process that includes educator input. A senior administration official said on a conference call that this process must consider test scores.

Beyond that, few details are available about the plan, such as the amount of funding over which states will have more discretion and the turnaround models that failing schools will have to use.

No Child Left Behind has been up for renewal since 2007, and the administration released its own blueprint for the law in March 2010. But congressional gridlock has prevented formal reauthorization so far. Both Republicans and Democrats have introduced small components of a reauthorization -- with one measure involving charter schools passing last week -- but few have gained traction.

In August, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Obama had approved plans to, in effect, reform the law without going through Congress: The secretary would waive specific provisions of the law in exchange for states agreeing to adopt favored reforms.

Under No Child Left Behind, the Secretary of Education may waive provisions of the law for states in need, but he has no explicit authority to ask states to adopt reforms in exchange.

The expanded waiver process is the administration's attempt to implement its own reforms, and the process comes with political risk. "The GOP is trying to develop a theme that Obama is overreaching in terms of federal power," said Jack Jennings, who heads the Center on Education Policy. "That's the argument they're using with the health care bill and the financial institution regulations. Now they're going to use it in education. [The administration is] playing into the narrative, and they know it."

Already, GOP congressmen are criticizing the plan. In a floor speech Thursday, former Education Secretary and current Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) urged Duncan to "show restraint" with waivers. "Just because the secretary has every state over a barrel doesn't mean he should be tempted to use this opportunity to become a national school board," said Alexander.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House education committee, said in a statement that he "simply cannot support a process that grants the Secretary of Education sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers."

On the other hand, a statement from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) called the waivers the "best temporary solution." Harkin oversees the Senate committee responsible for the bipartisan mockup of a reauthorization bill. "I am concerned that waivers provide a patchwork approach rather than a national solution," he said.

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