Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why The Next Round Of NCLB Waivers Might Be Trickier Than The First

    Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

    President Barack Obama greets audience members before his NCLB waiver announcement on Thursday.

    One day after releasing Indiana and nine other states from key requirements of No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration’s NCLB waiver announcement is already proving to be a political Rorschach test.

    Some left-leaning observers see the current No Child Left Behind act as effectively dead, or something close to it — which isn’t all good to them.

    But some right-leaning observers see No Child Left Behind as very much alive, with the waivers only masking Uncle Sam’s meddling in state-level policy.

    These perceptions are important. The U.S. Department of Education sold the waivers as offering “flexibility” to set their own standards under what’s left of ‘No Child.’ If officials in other states who’ve expressed interest in applying for a waiver see federal officials as inflexible, they might not even bother to apply.

    As the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli predicts:

    The White House is gearing up for a Kumbaya moment, as state officials gleefully accept the leeway bestowed upon them by President Obama. But as the news settles in over the next few days, don’t expect the reactions to be entirely positive, for it appears that the President and his education secretary have reneged on their promise of true “flexibility” for the states. Mostly what they seem to have done is substitute one set of rigid prescriptions for another…

    • In coming days, observers will notice that the amount of flexibility granted on accountability is tiny. Approved plans will amount to minor changes away from the AYP system we’ve got right now.
    • The number of states planning to apply for waivers by February 21 will drop precipitously, as they realize that it’s just not worth the effort.
    • All of this will embolden members of Congress to talk (again) about the urgency of fixing No Child Left Behind for real. John Kline will push his Republican reauthorization bills through the House. And then progress will stop as we await the results of the November election.

    In other words, don’t expect “Kumbaya” to last very long.

    Education blogger Alexander Russo adds some states are waiting and seeing because all the effort to get a waiver would be worthless if Congress acts:

    They’re worried about a Congressional rewrite of NCLB that would require states to start all over again even if they’d received a waiver. If more states start dropping out of the waiver process, the Administration might have to reconsider the review standards or face charges that it reneged on its promise of regulatory relief for states and districts.

    Carolyn Harless/WFIU

    State superintendent Tony Bennett (center) answers questions at an Indianapolis forum.

    But Jonathan Plucker, director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, doesn’t know what all the complaining is about. In no uncertain terms, he says Congressional action on an NCLB rewrite isn’t going anywhere, and the waivers have left Indiana with a better system. He told StateImpact in an interview Thursday:

    Something had to be done. Congress wasn’t going to do it. I do like the fact that [the Obama administration] did take a slightly conservative approach in that they let states propose what the waivers should be, and they really acted as the quality control mechanism. That’s kind of a market-based way to do this. I think eventually, they’re going to get a lot of credit for that, but they’re not getting it today…

    The dirty little very public secret about No Child Left Behind is that it left thousands of kids behind… To those criticisms on the left, I say, ‘Just give this a chance for a year or two.’ I actually think [Indiana’s new model] is much better for Indiana’s poor, minority, and special ed students than the old law was. A huge step in a better direction. So I don’t think that their criticisms hold much water here either.


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