NCLB Flexibility Waivers: Thirty-Three States and Counting

As of August 8, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) had issued waivers exempting 33 states and the District of Columbia from impossible-to-achieve No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements.

NCLB, the Bush-era version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has been awaiting congressional reauthorization since 2007. The law requires reauthorizing ESEA every five years to enable states to keep pace with current innovations.

But Democrats and Republicans have not been able to agree on the role of the federal government in pre-K-12 education. As a result, reauthorization has languished for five years, and the Obama administration now believes that NCLB is so outdated that it is holding states back.

Among its most rigid requirements, NCLB requires states to set annual measurable objectives (AMOs) that will make all students proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. It labels schools as failing for not meeting stringent goals — even when there has been clear progress. It strictly controls how states, districts and schools use federal funds.

In a written statement announcing the waiver program in February, President Obama says that NCLB is driving the wrong behaviors, from teaching to the test to federally determined one-size-fits-all interventions.

In a statement responding to questions posed for this article, ED adds: “NCLB helped shine a bright light on the achievement gap, set admirable goals and ensured that all students were included in the accountability system. But many NCLB requirements have unintentionally become barriers to state and local implementation of reforms.

“NCLB has requirements related to standards, accountability and teacher quality, but states have moved forward with reforms that go beyond NCLB’s requirements by implementing college- and career-ready standards, more nuanced and differentiated accountability systems, and evaluation and support systems for teachers and principals. These innovations were not contemplated by NCLB.”

The popular program gives states and districts the flexibility required to carry out these reforms.

Responding to the repeated failure of reauthorization proposals, the Obama administration instituted the waiver program in February of this year. In addition to the 33 states and the District of Columbia that already hold waivers, four additional states have applied. States may apply for the next round of waivers until Sept, 6, 2012.

Applying for Waivers
According to the ED statement, states may request flexibility through waivers of several specific NCLB provisions. Three of the most notable provisions are:
  • States can request a waiver of the 2013-2014 Timeline for Achieving 100 Percent Proficiency. Such a waiver means that states no longer have to set targets that require all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.
  • States can request relief from the increasingly severe consequences prescribed by NCLB for schools that fall into “School Improvement” status by failing to meet state and national achievement standards.
  • States can request increased flexibility to use federal funding streams in ways the states themselves determine will best meet their needs.

Waivers Aren’t Free
Designed to enable states to move beyond NCLB, the waivers still come with requirements.

In exchange for a waiver of NCLB’s 100-percent proficiency requirement, for example, states must “establish ambitious but achievable goals in reading, language arts and mathematics to support improvement efforts for all students in all schools,” says the ED statement.

States asking for relief from NCLB’s zero-tolerance School Improvement and Accountability consequences must design and implement plans that help the lowest performing districts and schools, as well as districts and schools with the largest achievement gaps. Plans must be tailored to the unique local needs.

Accountability Programs
“States must also must have accountability systems that recognize and reward high-performing schools and those that are making significant gains, while targeting rigorous and comprehensive interventions for the lowest-performing schools,” says the ED statement.

North Carolina, for example, is rewarding schools that attain student achievement goals with public recognition including media coverage, banners and a luncheon, continues the statement. The highest performing schools may also receive cash awards and mini-grants.

The ED statement also notes that state plans must require continued transparency around achievement gaps, while providing schools and districts with greater flexibility in spending Title I federal funds.

The waiver plan was developed in consultation with chief state school officers from 45 states and closely mirrors the administration reauthorization plan sent to the Hill in 2010.