Education Department Loosens NCLB Waiver Requirements

States can now apply to renew their waivers for one year, instead of two.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks at the press briefing of the White House on April 20, 2012, in Washington, D.C.
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Not long after it said states would have to increase their accountability measures to renew No Child Left Behind waivers, the Education Department is scaling back that process.

The department announced Aug. 29 that in order to renew the waivers that allow states to get around key requirements of the sweeping education law, they would have to show they are doing a better job of ensuring low-income and minority students are not disproportionately being taught by ineffective teachers, and that they would have to improve their use of federal funds for professional development.

[READ: Education Department Wants Stricter Guidelines for NCLB Waivers]

But on Wednesday, Education Week reported that the department said it was not only doing away with those two requirements, but also shortening the renewals from two years to one year.

Some student advocacy groups see the move as an about-face that will abandon low-income and minority students.

Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, an advocacy group that focuses on closing achievement gaps, said in a statement that the guidelines would have addressed "glaring problems" with its initial waiver process, and that the decision to remove those requirements was "baffling – and extremely disappointing."

"Through its actions today, the Department allows states to continue giving schools top ratings regardless of how student groups perform," Haycock said. "And it also allows them to keep sweeping under the rug the gaps in teacher quality that contribute so heavily to long-standing achievement gaps."

But Melissa Lazarin, director of education policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, says the department could be responding to the myriad of tasks states have undertaken recently. Many states are working to implement the Common Core State Standards, developing new assessments to align with those standards, and as a result of the initial NCLB waiver process are working to redesign their teacher evaluation and accountability systems.

"At the same time, the traditional federal role has always been to focus and look out for the most disadvantaged students," Lazarin says. "I think it will be very important for the department to outline a clear process and timeframe for addressing, in particular, the need to ensure that every student has equitable access to a great teacher."

[ALSO: Obama Adminisitration Grants NCLB Waiver to 8 California School Districts]

The department began issuing waivers for No Child Left Behind, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, in 2011, after education professionals for years criticized the 2002 law for unintentionally incentivizing states to set lower academic standards to meet its requirements.

Since 2011, 42 states, the District of Columbia, and eight California school districts have been approved, and of those states, 34 and the District of Columbia have waivers that will expire at the end of this school year. Those states must now present plans showing the conditions for the original waivers were being met now, as well as for the 2015-16 school year.

Although the stripped down renewal process may alleviate some burden from state education agencies, Haycock said it was not the right move.

"Let us be clear: We have no more interest than anybody else in a lengthy, bureaucratic waiver renewal process that imposes huge burdens on state officials and their staffs just to get a few extra 'i's' dotted or 't's' crossed," Haycock said. "But the law requires states to assure that their low-income students and students of color are not taught disproportionately by inexperienced, out-of-field or unqualified teachers, and it is high time for that provision to be enforced."

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