The nation's embattled key education policy may soon meet its administrative death. The White House today is detailing requirements for states that want to apply for waivers from essential components of No Child Left Behind, a law all sides call out-of-date and impossible. Its central provision requires every student to test at grade level in math and reading by 2014. But now, the Obama administration is providing a way to let states off the hook and hoping all states will take advantage. "This is not a competition where some states win and others are left behind," a senior administration official said on a Thursday call with reporters. "We'll encourage all states to apply, and everyone should have a chance to succeed." Several states have already indicated they plan to apply.
President Obama is scheduled to discuss the waivers in a speech this 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," he will say.
Requiring change in return for relief irks conservative lawmakers, who are trying to address the issue with a collection of smaller education bills. When Education Secretary Arne Duncan introduced the waiver idea earlier this year, Republicans called it an end-run around Congress, a case of the Obama administration legislating by waiver.
But senior administration officials say the plan was created with bipartisan input from governors and state school officers and will be focused more on setting goals and leaving room for innovation than on dictating the means to states. "Our goal is to support their work, get out of their way wherever we can, and hold them accountable wherever we must."
Duncan's remarks today will highlight that goal. "One of my highest priorities is to help ensure that federal laws and policies support the significant reforms underway in many states and school districts," he will say, "and do not hinder state and local innovation aimed at increasing the quality of instruction and improving student academic achievement."
States hoping for a waiver will have to do three things: First, show they are transitioning to college- and career-ready standards and assessments, something most have already initiated. Second, they must implement an accountability system to reward schools showing progress as well as high-achieving schools that serve low-income students, but also take action to improve low-performing schools or schools with large achievement gaps. The method of intervention into such schools will be decided by the states, officials say, but-low performing schools must be held accountable. Finally, states must work with local educators to find ways to evaluate and support teacher and principal effectiveness based on several proven factors, including student progress. "The purpose is not to give states and districts a reprieve from accountability," Obama will say, "but rather to unleash energy to improve our schools at the local level."
In addition to allowing states to set achievable goals free from the 2014 deadline, the waivers will give states freedom in choosing how to spend certain federal funds allocated by No Child Left Behind, as long as they protect spending for disadvantaged students.
States can begin applying in mid-November, and officials expect the first waivers will be issued early in 2012. Those that do not apply or qualify will still have to abide by No Child Left Behind until Congress puts something in its place. The law was supposed to be overhauled in 2007, but lawmakers have been unsuccessful so far, leaving school districts stuck with an increasingly unpopular policy.