The good news and bad news on NCLB waivers

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Education Commissioner Terry Holliday
Education Commissioner Terry Holliday

First, the good news: Last week the U.S. Department of Education (USED) notified us that it had approved Kentucky’s application for a one-year extension of our Elementary and Secondary Education Act/No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver flexibility. The extension will run through the 2014-15 school year.

The bad news is that we are still operating under an NCLB waiver, as we have been since the 2012-13 school year. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan offered the waivers to states due to the inability of Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (which was due for reauthorization in 2007). State chiefs and local school superintendents were very excited about the waivers as an opportunity to move public education forward, while the No. 1 priority was and always has been for Congress to reauthorize NCLB.

There are several pros to the NCLB waiver, especially for Kentucky. The federal waiver requirements were an excellent match to our Senate Bill 1 (2009) requirements for new standards, new assessments, a new accountability system, and professional development and support for educators to implement these new requirements. When Secretary Duncan announced the waiver requirements, Kentucky moved quickly to apply. With the waiver in hand we were able to implement new standards, assessments and a single accountability system for reporting school results, rather than having two systems – one for federal accountability, one for state – as we had in the past. Also, the federal waiver provided tremendous flexibility to our school districts on how to spend federal funds. All in all, we felt that the waiver was an excellent idea in the short term; however, no one thought waivers were a good idea in the long run.

As election seasons started to roll around, as if on cue, there was a lot of criticism of Secretary Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education. I, for one, found it hypocritical that Congress would complain about the waiver process when it was Congress’ failure to reauthorize No Child Left Behind that led to the process.

While the initial waiver process was something we supported in Kentucky, it has become problematic. When the state chiefs talked with Secretary  Duncan about what would happen at the end of the initial waiver period, we recommended a “streamlined and expedited” process for one-year extensions. It remained our hope as state chiefs that, in the meantime, Congress would reauthorize NCLB. That has not happened.

There is significant evidence from many states that the waiver extension process has not been streamlined. State chiefs have reported to me and our Kentucky experience has shown that our staffs spent hundreds of hours in preparing what was supposed to have been a streamlined application (our initial waiver extension request was almost 200 pages). Also, our staff spent many hours in conference calls and rewriting our waiver application based on questions raised from USED staff. Click here if if you’d like to read it.

Nor has the waiver extension process been expedited, as we were promised. We submitted our extension request May 1 and it was mid-August before we got word on its status. Our initial waiver took less time to approve. In fact, of the 42 states that originally obtained waivers and the 31 that have submitted waiver extensions, to date, 13 are still waiting for word from USED on their status. In many cases, school has already started and school districts are not certain of which set of rules they will be governed by for the school year – NCLB or the waiver.

Now, USED is asking us to give feedback on the process for a two-year waiver extension for school years 2015-16 and 2016-17.

As one state chief, speaking only for Kentucky, it is time to end this process. It is time for Congress to act. We need a stable, long-range plan, not a series of cobbled-together waivers that take away staff time from the work of improving education for all children.

Next week, I will provide more insight as to why I believe the current waiver process represents a major federal intrusion into the rights of each state to develop, implement, and manage the public education of the state.

 

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