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Duncan Claims Authority to Tie NCLB Waivers to 'Reforms'

Slowly, but surely, more details are starting to come out about U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's plans to grant states waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act in exchange for a "basket of reforms."

Here are highlights from a conference call with reporters Monday, his second on the subject:

On his executive authority: Duncan says Section 9401 of the No Child Left Behind law gives him "pretty clear" authority to not only grant waivers, but to demand a "basket of reforms" in return. And, importantly, Duncan emphasized that these reforms will not be available "a la carte" style, in which states could pick and choose. States would have to embrace all of Duncan's reforms to get their relief. Top aide Carmel Martin noted that there's precedent for such efforts in the growth model and differentiated accountability pilot programs. But those pilots didn't seem to require states to commit to such a significant "basket of reforms". Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess are raising questions about whether Duncan is going too far. And Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, today reiterated that he's not a fan of Duncan's plan, which he said is "not flexibility, and could result in additional regulations and confusion for schools. The department should tread carefully with any scheme that bypasses the legislative process."

On Race to the Top states: Liz Bowie, of the Baltimore Sun, asked a great question—and didn't get a good answer—about whether Race to the Top states (like hers, Maryland) will have an easier time getting a waiver. Martin's response: "This is open to all states." Well, of course. Liz pressed on but only got another comment from Martin about how a lot of other states are making Race to the Top-style reforms. It seems pretty clear that the dozen Race to the Top winners could be shoo-ins for these waivers.

On tutoring/choice: One area that seems to have a target on its back is the requirement that districts set aside 20 percent of their Title I monies to provide tutoring and public school choice to students. Although Duncan is a "big supporter" of tutoring and public school choice, Martin said: "We also want to give flexibility to local communities to determine what the best interventions are." This would be a pretty big blow to the tutoring businesses that have flourished under that provision of the law.

On disaggregated data: That's here to stay. What Duncan and Co. did not say is how subgroups (such as special education students or English-language learners) might fit into his waiver plan.

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