Questions About ESEA Waivers

by Matt Williams on February 22, 2013

Last week the Administration’s ESEA Waivers were in the spotlight. First, the Senate HELP Committee held a hearing titled, “No Child Left Behind: Early Lessons from State Flexibility Waivers.” Additionally, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) hosted a discussion, “States Reflect on New Accountability Systems: Waivers, Now What?”, where state chiefs from Terry Holliday (KY), Chris Cerf (NJ) and John King, Jr. (NY) discussed their implementation of new accountability systems through the waivers.

The hearing led to increased rhetoric around reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) admitting that Congress has dropped the ball on ESEA and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) thanking Secretary Arne Duncan for “stepping into the breach.” Questions still materialized around whether or not the Secretary over stepped his bounds regarding the waiver process and whether or not he and the Department have been too prescriptive.

Additionally, two national education organizations put out reports that take a critical look at the waivers. The Education Trust put out a report called, “A Step Forward or a Step Back? State Accountability in the Waiver Era.” The report is critical of the goals states have set, calls into question the super subgroups, and gives an “eh” rating to the school improvement plans in the waivers. The Alliance for Excellent Education released a report last week, “The Effect of ESEA Waiver Plans on High School Graduation Rate Accountability.”  The report takes the waivers to task arguing that they fundamentally weaken graduation rate accountability in many states.

Fundamentally, the questions around super subgroups and graduation rate accountability are incredibly important questions to answer – especially with an eye towards equity – but at this moment it is too early to get an accurate read as states are merely at the beginning stages of implementation. There are other questions that will be interesting to track as the waivers are implemented:

  1. How will the U.S. Department of Education hold states accountable for the outcomes enumerated in their waiver requests? Moreover, what will the process look like for amending waiver requests? For example, many states may want to reset their Annual Measurable Outcomes (AMOs) after their first round of Common Core aligned testing. If Kentucky’s scores are any indication of where other states will fall, it is reasonable to think that states will want to reset their targets.
  2. Will the U.S. Department of Education enter into the fray with district level waivers? There has been much discussion and lack of clarity on behalf of the Department on this question. There has been open discussion to giving a consortium of California districts a waiver given the state’s issues in obtaining a state level waiver. Conventional wisdom is that district waivers only will be granted (if at all) to districts in states that do not have or will not apply for a state level waiver (howdy, Texas). However, some will view a district level waiver as a gross overreach by the Administration.
  3. Lastly, I have a great many questions around the interventions and supports for low performing schools outlined in the waiver requests. Beyond the details in the actual approved waiver request, how are states connecting and aligning the interventions and supports for priority, focus, and connecting the best practices from the reward schools? How will states sustain these measures at the school, district, and community levels? How will states rescope and align state and federal dollars to sustain systemic strategies (in particular Titles I and II, SIG and the state level set asides) to address schools at the cusp of the lowest 5% category as well as develop human capital strategies around low performing schools (including but not limited to turnaround leaders)?

It is clear, on multiple fronts, that there are many questions surrounding ESEA Waivers and their implementation in thirty-four states and the District of Columbia. We will all be watching but at this moment, only time will tell. KnowledgeWorks will be tracking the waivers as implementation unfolds. We will be tackling some of the above questions, particularly those around interventions and supports, in future publications and policy briefs.

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