- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2011

States are rushing for the No Child Left Behind exit door.

Within hours of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s announcement Monday that he will grant waivers from federal mandates, several states announced that they would apply for relief. Many others are expressing interest, pending the release of more details next month.

Tennessee didn’t wait for Mr. Duncan’s news conference: The state sent its waiver request two weeks ago.

The mad dash to escape high-stakes testing and gain more flexibility represents “a sense of desperation” among states, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

“There’s no question that school districts and the states themselves are looking for anything that will provide a break,” he told The Washington Times on Tuesday, adding that states and school leaders are taking a “we’ll do whatever it is you want us to do” attitude toward Mr. Duncan’s waiver proposal.

Mr. Duncan floated the strategy this summer in the hopes that it would spur Congress to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act.

That hasn’t happened, so the Obama administration has moved forward with a plan to grant waivers to states if they demonstrate reform and maintain high levels of student achievement. All 50 states can apply, and Mr. Domenech said he expects that the vast majority of them will do so.

The mystery surrounding the details of the plan doesn’t appear to be deterring states.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton announced Monday, while the ink was still drying on the transcript of Mr. Duncan’s announcement, that his state will take part in the waiver program.

He said in a statement that No Child Left Behind “has harmed, not improved, the quality of students’ learning experiences,” and he will gladly accept an escape route.

“Such a waiver would allow Minnesota educators to focus on what is working in their schools,” he said. “It would provide school boards, administrators, teachers and parents with the flexibility they need.”

The governments of Wisconsin, Kentucky, Nevada, Oregon and other states also say they plan to apply. Florida, New Hampshire, Montana and many more are considering the idea.

Most cite unrealistic expectations of No Child Left Behind as their motivation. The law calls for 100 percent of students to be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, a goal widely viewed as unattainable.

Mr. Duncan has estimated that more than 80 percent of schools will fall short of the act’s goal this year, and many schools that continue to make progress are still stigmatized as “failing” under the law.

“We’re at a point now where [the education act] doesn’t discriminate between [schools] that are making progress and those that are stuck,” Massachusetts Education Department spokesman J.C. Considine said Tuesday. “We’re certainly entertaining the possibility of a waiver.”

While agreeing that the federal mandates must be lifted, Mr. Domenech said he would prefer to see Mr. Duncan grant a blanket waiver to all states, not offer another “quid pro quo” that offers rewards in exchange for action that meets the approval of the Education Department.

“It’s similar to Race to the Top and other directives that have come from the department,” he said. “Before it was for the money. … Now it’s for regulatory relief.”

Race to the Top, the administration’s signature education initiative, allowed states to compete for federal grant money by drafting school reform plans. The Education Department judged those plans on a 500-point scale, and the winners received money, while the losers got nothing.

Mr. Domenech and others said they fear that the waiver proposal could include such stringent requirements and micromanagement from the federal government that states end up no better than they are now under No Child Left Behind.

“The devil is always in the details as to what will be required of the states in order for a waiver to be granted,” Tim Eller, Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman, said Tuesday.

The administration’s plan could have another unintended consequence: Some fear the waiver strategy will give Congress an excuse to slow the acceleration of education reform.

But Mr. Domenech said that, waivers or not, federal lawmakers are unlikely to extend or reform No Child Left Behind.

“There’s just such a lack of willingness to come together and collaborate. … I don’t think, one way or the other, it’s going to happen,” he said.