Funding Survival Toolkit | February 2013 Digital Edition

State and District NCLB Waivers: Good News and Bad News

Waivers from the onerous No Child Left Behind requirements offer states and districts much-needed financial flexibility, but they can also lead to confusion.


This article originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's February 2013 digital edition.



When the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) became law in 2002, it provided large sums of money to states for education. The program also had very strict performance requirements, including a 2014 deadline for all students to be proficient in mathematics and language arts. During the past 10 years, concerns about NCLB requirements have mounted among educators, while reauthorization of the legislation has been awaiting congressional action since 2007.

To provide some relief from the provisions of NCLB, the Obama administration is offering waivers to states that wish to apply. The program is called ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) Flexibility, but most refer to it as NCLB waivers, or just "waivers" for short. To date, 44 states have either requested waivers or have been approved to implement next-generation education reforms that go far beyond No Child Left Behind's rigid, top-down prescriptions.

The philosophy behind waivers is to give control back to states and encourage both rigor and innovation. To receive one, states must address certain requirements, including adopting college-and-career-ready standards, focusing significant attention on the most troubled schools, and creating guidelines for teacher evaluations based in part on student performance.

Once granted, waivers will free states to set their own student-achievement goals and design their own definitions of--and interventions for--failing schools. Some specifics:

  • Instead of declaring that all students must be proficient by 2014 and insisting on adequate yearly progress requirements, waivers allow states to establish their own accountability goals, processes, and measurements.
  • Rather than sanctioning failing schools, states can develop their own intervention programs for the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools.
  • In place of setting aside funds to pay for supplemental educational services (SES), districts can select their own remediation strategies.
  • Funds that NCLB earmarks for transporting students who don't wish to attend their failing local schools can be used for other Title I activities.

While waivers do give states and districts more freedom, they can also create complications. Here's a rundown of the good news and the bad news for educators in states that have been granted waivers.

Each state has its own plan. The good news is that these plans can meet local and regional needs. The bad news is that inconsistencies across states may make sharing resources a challenge. With waivers, some funds may be tied to unique requirements in a state. In a multistate program, such as the new alliance between Ohio and Massachusetts designed to create an instructional improvement system, there is potential for conflict over how money can be used.

Each state has its own accountability requirements. The good news is that the rigor of NCLB is mitigated. The bad news is that multiple strategies for dealing with accountability may cause problems as students move from state to state. Also, assessment providers may have to invest in customizing their offerings to meet these local requirements.

States have more flexibility in allocating some of the federal funds. The good news is that your local programs may benefit from this flexibility. The bad news is that there may be more confusion about how the funds can be used, which may stall their allocation to districts.

States can combine subgroups of students such as English language learners, students with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students into "super subgroups." The good news is that it's easier to track only one big group. The bad news is that data on such a diverse population will not help to inform instruction for the various subgroups.

Also, who will manage what funding is still an open question. Take the SES monies, for example. Formerly managed by after-school coordinators, these funds might now go into someone else's budget, so you may end up talking about your after-school mentoring and coaching solution with a subject-area coordinator or a principal who isn't immersed in the details of your requirements.

States must change how they deal with low-performing schools. The good news is that districts with low-performing schools will get support from the state to throw out products that haven't been working and purchase new ones. The bad news is that, before purchasing new ones, districts must see evidence of effectiveness from the companies selling the products. And of course the pressure will be on to quickly turn around results using the new products.

District Waivers
In states that have not applied for waivers, or have not had their applications approved, some districts are asking the US Department of Education for their own waivers. After California's state waiver application was denied in December, several of its districts are now considering applying for waivers from the onerous testing requirements of NCLB. In Texas, 23 members of the Texas High Performance Schools Consortium have recently asked for waivers from testing mandates. They are seeking the flexibility to create a new accountability system, set their own calendars, and determine their own graduation requirements.

Currently, the Department of Education is reviewing applications from all over the country, and Secretary Arne Duncan says he is open to the possibility of granting district waivers, which would work just like state waivers. The whole process stalled during the 2012 election because the Republicans were proposing to do away with waivers altogether, but I expect a final decision when a new team is in place at the ED.

Whatever state you live in, waivers may affect your operations, especially in terms of accountability, teacher evaluation, and flexibility in working with certain populations. As always, there is good news and bad. So while there may be ultimately more money available to fund your programs, not everyone in the states knows what the new rules are or when they will impact specific programs.

Your call to action is this: Learn what is happening with waivers in your state and how that might impact your school, your district, and, yes, even you.

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