NCLB Waivers Under Scrutiny After Second Round of Applications

The effectiveness and legitimacy of the Obama’s administration No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers came under scrutiny during a panel discussion Friday at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
by | March 2, 2012

The effectiveness and legitimacy of the Obama administration's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers came under scrutiny during a panel discussion Friday at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Significant disagreement existed across ideological lines about whether the waivers provided the flexibility emphasized in the administration’s rhetoric and even whether there was the legal authority for the Education Department to grant them. The panel featured Carmel Martin, assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development at the Education Department; Mike Petrilli, executive vice president at Fordham, a conservative education think tank; Jeremy Ayers, an education fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank; and Michele McNeil, assistant editor at Education Week.

Martin pointed out that the Bush administration had offered some flexibility to states from certain provisions of the law and argued that NCLB granted the Secretary of Education the ability to provide waivers so long as states were committed to reforms that adhered to the principles of improving student achievement and teacher quality as outlined in the statute.

The department hopes the waivers will “help inform the legislative process, which we have not given up on,” Martin said. “In the meantime, we just heard the call from the field… that the law was long overdue, and they were moving on with or without us.”

NCLB reauthorization bills have passed out of committee in both the House and Senate, but skepticism remains about whether any significant action will be taken during an election year. Waivers allow states to be exempted from certain aspects of the law, most notably the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) system, in exchange to committing to reforms outlined by the administration. Thus far, 11 states have had their waivers approved, and another 26 (plus the District of Columbia) have applied for relief.

Petrilli, who worked for the Education Department during the Bush years, contended that the administration has imposed conditions upon states, which they must meet in order to receive the waivers. “Is there the legal authority for that?” he asked rhetorically. If a state intentionally ignored one aspect of the application and the department denied the waiver, Petrilli argued that a lawsuit could be filed and the department “would lose.”

The panelists also disagreed about whether the department had given enough flexibility to states and if the waivers led to too much inconsistency between states. For example, Kentucky and New Mexico, two of the first 11 states to apply, set significantly different goals for student growth. Kentucky aims to have all of its schools reach the student achievement levels of the current 70th percentile over the next five years. New Mexico intends for all of its schools to reach the level of the current 90th percentile in the next six years.

States are also readjusting how they evaluate various economic and ethnic subgroups, a hallmark of NCLB. Florida, for example, has proposed focusing on the bottom 25 percent of students, regardless of their other characteristics, for various intervention efforts. Two of the first 11 states asked to stop reporting data on the subgroups laid out in the law, Martin said, but those requests were denied. Instead, states were required to continue reporting the data, but could still overhaul their intervention efforts based on these new “super-subgroups.”

Petrilli claimed that such influence from the department on state plans meant the waivers “didn’t go as far as the rhetoric implies” regarding flexibility. Chester Finn, president of the Fordham Institute, who moderated the discussion, asked how the department could monitor 50 different accountability and intervention systems. Ayers suggested that the practicalities of that process must be evaluated “one year at a time, one step at a time” after the waivers are implemented. Martin asserted that the department was reacting to the calls for autonomy and flexibility that states were already asking for.

The waivers “allow state and local actors to take greater ownership over how progress would be measured,” Martin said, adding that states pursued very different methodologies for their new accountability metrics. “We had to find a balance between not resting on your laurels… and the goals becoming meaningless.”

The 27 waiver applications filed this week are available for review on the Education Department’s website. Governing has compiled the map below to mark each state’s position in the waiver program

Application approved
Application approval pending
Intend to submit application
No application submitted

NOTE: Alaska has not submitted an application and Hawaii intends to submit one. Information is current as of March 2012.


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