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Policy Analysis | February 10, 2012

NCLB Waivers, Part Three

Jonathan Watts Hull

In an announcement yesterday, President Barack Obama awarded 10 states, five from the South (Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Tennessee), waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The states will receive relief from requirements in the law in exchange for implementing reforms around standards, teacher effectiveness and accountability.

Three state waivers, Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma, are conditional upon the states adopting policies or legislation that completes the reforms outlined in their applications. For the most part, however, these conditions relate to parts of the plans that are not yet in place but are in process.

The other five states earning relief are Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey. The Department of Education is working with New Mexico (the only state applying for a waiver in the first round that was unsuccessful) on completing its application. Taken together, the 10 states represent nearly 24 percent of all American students.

In exchange for receiving a waiver, states must to agree to adopt specific changes to their educational programs. For the most part, these changes mirror the expectations of the Race to the Top Grants that were announced by the Administration last year. To earn a waiver, states must:

  • Adopt college- or career-readiness standards for all students
  • Establish evaluation systems for teachers and principals and implement programs to improve effectiveness
  • Institute new performance targets for improving student achievement and closing achievement gaps
  • Develop a new accountability system with particular focus on targeted interventions for the lowest performing schools and rewards for high-performing schools and those that are making significant gains

Among the flexibilities offered by the waivers, chief among them is relief from a requirement to have all students proficient in reading and math on state assessments by 2014, a target that is widely considered to be unrealistic. States also earn increased flexibility on how they spend Title I funds, removing the silo approach that limits their application at the school level. States also will be able to measure school and district effectiveness based on student improvement (rather than static performance, as under current law). States also were given the leeway on the measures they would take to improve performance at the lowest achieving schools, a departure from NCLB, which mandates states take specific, and in some places unrealistic, interventions when schools fall below targets. Moreover, the waivers step back from the highly proscriptive nature of NCLB on determining performance targets and sanctions for those schools failing to meet benchmarks, providing states the ability to tailor targets and interventions.

An interesting element of the waiver requirements is that states must expand actions beyond the current system of interventions for low achieving schools to a program of rewards for high and improved performance, coupled with strategies for improving the outcomes for schools and subgroups of students who continue to struggle. Such a differentiated accountability system has been implemented in several states, although reconciling such systems with mandates of NCLB can prove to be problematic

As has been outlined in previous issues of Ednotes on the Issues and in a recent SLC Issue Alert, the move to implement waivers comes, in part, because Congress is past due to reauthorize and update the No Child Left Behind Act, which became law in January 2002. In many ways, activities and reforms at the state and local level have raced ahead of the existing federal law, including state-driven efforts for new shared state standards and shared assessments; new teacher and principal evaluation systems that are tied to effectiveness and improved practice; and enhanced school and system-wide accountability systems that focus on improvements instead of sanctions.

The waivers reflect a response to the general frustration with the current state of affairs, as well as a need to move forward on education reform outside existing policy. Dissenting responses to the issuance of waivers has been fairly muted, although the California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson (who is responsible for the education of nearly 13 percent of all students in the United States) noted in a statement "[NCLB]'s failures should prompt a thorough reassessment of the federal role in education, not merely the substitution of one set of inflexible requirements for another." Others, including Congressman John Kline, chair of the House Education Committee, echoed concern that education reform would require a legislative, and not executive, resolution.

These concerns notwithstanding, there is a recognition that while there is a consensus on the fact that NCLB is broken, there is no consensus on how to fix it, and very little likelihood that Congress will take action on it prior to the 2014 proficiency deadline. Without some relief, states and districts will find themselves in the position of undertaking costly interventions for students in the vast majority of schools.

While the relief provided by the administration from NCLB follows upon a narrow range of options, the approach to education reform it supports in many ways reflects the steps already being taken at the state level, reflecting an acknowledgement that states, and not the federal government, continue to drive forward education reform. In making the announcement of the waivers yesterday, President Obama noted as much, saying "if we're serious about helping our children reach their potential, the best ideas aren't going to come from Washington alone."

The announcement of the 10 states to earn flexibility from NCLB is not the end of the process, however. When the proposal was presented in September 2011, the administration acknowledged that not all states were in the same position to meet the requirements for flexibility, and that there would be a second round of applications considered for relief. To date, 28 states have indicated their intentions to seek waivers. The deadline for submission for the second round of waivers is February 21.

State applications for waivers may be viewed below:

Southern States Outside the Region
Florida Colorado
Georgia Indiana
Kentucky Massachusetts
Oklahoma Minnesota
Tennessee New Jersey

States indicating an intention to apply for waivers in the second round (as of February 6):

Southern States Outside the Region
Arkansas Arizona New Hampshire
Louisiana Connecticut New York
Mississippi D.C. Ohio
Missouri Delaware Oregon
North Carolina Idaho Puerto Rico
South Carolina Illinois Rhode Island
Virginia Iowa South Dakota
Kansas Utah
Maine Vermont
Maryland Washington
Michigan Wisconsin
Nevada