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Feds Restore Oklahoma’s No Child Left Behind Waiver

Less than three months after losing control over $30 million in federal spending, Oklahoma again has a waiver from the 2001 law.

Oklahoma will not lose control over a portion of its federal funding next year, according to state officials, who announced Monday that the U.S. Department of Education has restored the state’s waiver from the 2001 accountability law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

In August, Oklahoma became the second state to lose a waiver from the 2001 law, which mandated standardized testing and set annual growth goals called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). That goal required all schools to be proficient in both math and reading by the end of 2014 or face escalating consequences, but the Department of Education has issued waivers from that goal in exchange for adopting “college-and-career-ready” standards and testing-based evaluations for teachers. 

More than 40 states have waivers from No Child left Behind. Washington was the first state to lose its waiver in April after the legislature failed to overhaul teacher evaluations. The loss required school districts this year to set aside about $40 million toward tutoring for struggling students or busing children to higher-performing schools. 

Oklahoma schools would have faced similar restrictions on about $29 million in federal funding through Title I funding of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which distributes money to schools and school districts with a high percentage of students from poor families. But NCLB also makes layoffs, extended school days and the loss of local control possible for longer-struggling schools as well. 

Oklahoma argued in a letter in response to the loss of its waiver that those struggling schools have greatly improved. The state’s education board said their improvements “impressed” federal officials, but the Department of Education insisted on tougher education standards. Most states have adopted the Common Core, which have become a polarizing symbol of federal overreach despite starting as a state-led initiative, but Oklahoma repealed those standards earlier this year.

The federal government allows state to adopt different but similarly rigorous standards with the approval of a state higher education board, and a number have done so, including Minnesota and Virginia. State higher education regents declared Oklahoma’s previous standards “college-and-career- ready” on Oct. 16, paving the way for a reinstated waiver. 

Defenders of the Common Core greeted the news as a vindication of state flexibility. “It means the state are in control of their standards again, which is as it should be,” said Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, via Twitter.

Critics, however, argued the move damages the credibility of the Department of Education’s waiver policy, raising questions about consistency.

“I think what it says is that the waiver strategy started off as a dubious spectacle and it has now descended into farce,” said Rick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.  “Apparently what the federal government requires from a state in education is apparently subject to change in any given week depending on what [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan deems politically viable.”

But Chad Alderman, a policy analyst at the consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners, argued the federal government was always clear about the possibility of getting a higher education board to sign off on alternative standards—even if that took no more than a letter of support without much in the way of policy justification. The problem is the disruption and confusion districts now face, he said. 

“Basically, they’ve gone from a waiver system to a No-Child-Left-Behind-light system then back to a waiver system in a couple months,” he said.

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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