It's unclear just how serious Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his top aides are when they talk about pursuing waivers for districts in states that choose not to take advantage of a broader waiver under the No Child Left Behind Act.
But state chiefs have a message for Duncan nonetheless: Back off the idea of district-level waivers. (Okay, so they put it a little more nicely than that.)
During an hour-long Q-and-A session in Washington Monday at a legislative conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers, Duncan mostly danced around the issue of district-level waivers, saying that he wouldn't grant them to districts in states that had already secured a waiver from the department. But what about flexibility for districts in states that do not obtain a waiver? All he would say is: "We'll look at where we are at that point."
Later, the department would only clarify that district waivers are one idea "under consideration."
The chiefs' antennae went up last week after top Education Department aide Michael Yudin told urban school superintendents that officials are pursuing district waivers for states that choose not to pursue a waiver from the department by the September third-round deadline. (California, Texas, and Pennsylvania could be among those.) He said the debate within the department had moved on to what such a waiver process would look like, and how the department would manage it.
Mindful of those comments, state superintendents pressed the secretary. Virginia's state chief Patricia Wright said such a move would "undermine states." Colorado's Robert Hammond said such a move would "bypass" state authority and result in "unintended consequences."
Duncan, in his response, urged them to help those districts that want to go above and beyond their accountability systems to innovate. He pointed to the department's decision earlier this month to grant waivers to Kansas, on behalf of three individual districts, to use alternative exams for accountability purposes.
Kansas commissioner Diane DeBacker pushed back, and pointed out that the part of the state's district waiver application that officials thought was most innovative—allowing alternative exams in lower grades—was rejected by the feds.
Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ron Tomalis asked Duncan whether there were any other options for flexibility besides the formal waiver route the department has set out. (And besides a one-year temporary halt to increasing annual academic targets that the department is allowing for a few states that need more time to write their applications.)
Carmel Martin—one of Duncan's top aides who accompanied him to the conference—jumped in and told Tomalis, basically, no. She said just handing out waivers and expecting nothing in return would put the department in "uncertain waters." (I don't think Tomalis was expecting a waiver for free, but that's beside the point.) She even said that Duncan has a "legal obligation" to offer waivers closely aligned with the original principles of the law that improve student achievement.
After Duncan's remarks, Tomalis told me in an interview that he had "serious reservations" about district waivers.
"To allow districts to go directly to the feds to get waivers ... it would be difficult to see who is exactly responsible for accountability and reforms in their states," said Tomalis, whose state is still evaluating whether it will apply in September. "Districts are creatures of state government."
For its part, CCSSO is opposed to district waivers unless they are pursued in cooperation with a state, said executive director Gene Wilhoit.