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Idaho Wins NCLB Flexibility; More States Line up for Relief

The U.S. Department of Education gave Idaho approval to keep its annual proficiency targets in math and reading the same for a third year in a row after the state's education chief, Tom Luna, told federal officials he planned to defy key parts of the No Child Left Behind Act.

[UPDATE, 6:49 p.m.]: In the July 27 approval letter to Luna, the education department makes clear the approval marks a change to Idaho's accountability plan, and not a formal waiver. Also, the letter says the state must continue on the path towards 100 percent proficiency in future years. However, proficiency targets would remain the same for three years in a row, which the law allows.

As states wait for details about U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's plan to create a formal waiver process from many of the requirements of NCLB, more states are jumping the gun. Tennessee and Michigan are the latest to formally seek waivers from NCLB. Most states are asking for relief from the 2014 deadline for all students to be proficient in math and reading. As that 100 percent proficiency deadline approaches, more schools are failing to make "adequate yearly progress," the main yardstick under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which NCLB is the latest version. Schools that don't make AYP face an escalating set of sanctions, and states and districts are struggling to deal with that growing number.

While states such as Michigan and Tennessee are asking permission to ignore parts of the law, other states, including Idaho, are just telling the department they plan to disobey it with or without approval.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna informed the department in June that he had no intention of complying with the part of the law that requires states to gradually increase proficiency targets in math and reading. Eventually, the goal is for 100 percent of students to be proficient in both subjects by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

In his letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Luna essentially said that with reauthorization stalled in Congress, he was taking matters into his own hands. Luna didn't ask for a waiver; he told them what he was going to do. But the department apparently responded with formal permission.

The department's reaction is in sharp contrast to what's playing out in Montana, which was the first state to inform the feds that it would not be raising its proficiency targets. State officials there were told by the Education Department to come up with a plan to comply with NCLB by Aug. 15 or face consequences, including the loss of federal Title I dollars, which NCLB governs.

But there are key differences between the states. Montana essentially wanted to keep its targets the same for four years in a row. Duncan, in his letter to Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, said those "flat expectations" were unacceptable, although he understood the flaws in NCLB. For Idaho, the proficiency targets will be the same for three years in a row. So perhaps Idaho's actions weren't as daring?

South Dakota, which has also told the department it plans to freeze proficiency targets, had not gotten an official response from federal officials when I checked with Education Secretary Melody Schopp's office today. It appears that from the state's accountability workbook that's on file and online with the federal education department, South Dakota would be keeping its proficiency targets flat for three years in a row. Will that be acceptable to the department? Stay tuned.

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