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Education Department Pursues NCLB Waivers for Districts

The U.S. Department of Education, which is in the middle of granting waivers to states from many of the core tenets of the No Child Left Behind Act, already is thinking ahead to how it can offer the same flexibility to school districts in states that choose not to seek a waiver.

Top Education Department officials are signaling that once states are given a chance to apply for waivers in September during a third round of judging, the department plans to open up some sort of flexibility options for districts, too.

Michael Yudin, the acting assistant secretary in the department's office of elementary and secondary education, said as much today at a legislative conference for the Council of the Great City Schools.

He told those gathered in Washington that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is "sympathetic" to the plight of districts in states that, at least so far, don't seem to be interested in a department waiver. (Think Texas and California in particular.) As for district-level waivers, he said, "we're working that through as well." He said that the department is still working on what a district-level waiver would look like, and how to manage the process.

Afterward, Yudin told me that although the department thinks changes to accountability are best accomplished and leveraged at the state level, "there are some very strong districts that want to move forward."

The department wants to wait to announce any district-level waiver plan until after the third-round deadline in September so as not to "undermine" states that want to take their time in applying, he said.

Already, 11 states have won waivers, and 26 more plus the District of Columbia have applied in the second round. Yudin indicated five more states are likely to apply in September. That list likely includes New Hampshire and Maine.

As of now, it seems highly likely two very large states will sit out of the formal waiver process entirely: Texas and California which, combined, have 1,980 school districts that may have to stick with NCLB as is.

Districts, including some in California, clamored for district-level options during the original $4 billion Race to the Top, but were unsuccessful. (Now, the Education Department is planning to use $550 million in new Race to the Top for a district-level competition. Read more about that over at District Dossier.)

But creating waivers for districts stirs up many questions:
• Would the same flexibility be granted (such as getting to reset yearly academic targets and waiving set-asides for tutoring and choice)?
• What would the department expect in return, especially since so many things (such as adopting common standards) are done at the state level?
• Would states view this as an end-run around their authority?
• And what will Congress, which is already very irritated about Duncan's broad interpretation of his NCLB waiver authority, think of this? Will it make reauthorization even harder?

To be sure, the department recognizes the potentially daunting challenges of such a waiver plan. Consider if all 1,980 school districts in Texas and California, as an example, wanted their very own waiver. Talk about a management and oversight challenge.

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