State waivers leave uncertainty in federal school reform law

No Child Left Behind isn’t going away just yet.

President Obama has been busy in recent weeks issuing waivers to states seeking to evade the deadlines and mandates in the federal statute, the foundation of predecessor George W. Bush’s education agenda but a law many critics say is unworkable. But that still leaves a confusing, patchwork system in which schools in Montana, New Hampshire and other states and other states will be operating under the No Child Left Behind blueprint for the foreseeable future.

About 10 states have yet to decide whether they will apply for a waiver, which would free them from the much-maligned “adequate yearly progress” threshold and other cumbersome provisions in the law. At least three states - Montana, New Hampshire and Maine - have told the Education Department in no uncertain terms they will not apply for a waiver and will, instead, take their chances under the current system.

The decisions create a first-of-its-kind situation in modern American education policy whereby some states will be governed by their own reform plans approved by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others remain subject to the 2002 law the administration has desperately wanted to scrap since coming to power in 2009.

“States do the calculations, and they may come to a rational decision that [a waiver] just isn’t worth it,” said Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

The first 11 states obtained waivers from the Obama administration earlier this month and, beginning in the fall, will be exempt from the law’s most onerous mandate: that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. In exchange, they have agreed to enact teacher evaluation systems and other changes cleared by the Obama administration, the details of which differ from state to state. Another 27 states are expected to apply by Tuesday’s deadline.

So far, politics appears to have little to do with which states are opting in and which are staying out.

Some Republican governors, including Tennessee’s Bill Haslam and New Jersey’s Chris Christie, have embraced the waiver plan and have had their reform proposals approved. Some Democratic governors, including California’s Jerry Brown and New Hampshire’s John Lynch, have bucked the administration and, thus far, resisted the waiver idea.

Their motivation appears to be, in part, a reluctance to sign away more power to the Education Department and the federal government. While No Child Left Behind remains highly unpopular across the education spectrum, some states simply don’t want to subject themselves to the administration’s tight time frame, or to conform to some of the specific waiver requirements, said Kathy Christie, vice president of knowledge and information management at the Education Commission of the States.

“In some states, you just don’t see much buy-in on anything federal. If they didn’t buy in the first time [with No Child Left Behind], they won’t necessarily want to buy out. There’s always that sentiment,” she said.

That sentiment was the driving force behind Montana’s decision. State Superintendent of Public Education Denise Juneau was joined by the state’s teachers unions, the association of local school boards and other groups in a letter to Mr. Duncan in December, saying, in essence, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

“Given the impacts on Montana’s schools, the financial resources and the capacity of my small agency to complete the ‘all or nothing’ waiver package, I have determined it does not make educational or financial sense for Montana to apply for a waiver,” the letter reads in part.

Ms. Juneau also expressed concern that the reform plans could be rendered irrelevant if Congress passes a new comprehensive education bill, which it has been unable to do despite heavy pressure from the administration. While the House and Senate have each made some progress, there appears to be little chance for a grand compromise during a presidential election year.

Like their counterparts in Montana, school officials in Maine and New Hampshire still intend to implement reforms - just not on the administration’s timetable.

“Rushing to create and implement a plan … will result in a less-thoughtful system that ill serves the students in our state,” New Hampshire Education Commissioner Virginia Barry and Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said in a recent joint letter to the administration.

“We are not interested in engaging in this work solely to obtain a waiver from the federal government,” the letter reads in part. “We are interested in engaging in this work to improve learning for our students.”

While No Child Left Behind will remain the law of the land in some states, it remains unclear just how strict the Education Department will be in enforcing it, Mr. Petrilli said. The department’s focus clearly has turned to the waiver plan, and no one is sure how much manpower and resources it will dedicate to reforms going forward, he said.

“We’re moving into an era where there is a discrepancy from state to state on how [No Child Left Behind] is going to work, and there’s a total lack of clarity of what will or will not be enforced. At the state and local level, it’s going to lead to a lot of confusion. It’s going to lead to paralysis,” he said.

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