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'Secret Meeting' in South Carolina Held to Quash ESEA Waiver

From guest blogger Nirvi Shah:

When U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited South Carolina recently, state Superintendent Mick Zais was told the two couldn't talk about a special education spending issue that has been lingering for months. (Zais' request was turned down because of a pending appeal of the special education matter.)

But Zais did end up attending a meeting organized by U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat, on behalf of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, who was trying to convince Duncan not to approve the state's application for a waiver from some of No Child Left Behind's provisions. Also in attendance was former Education Secretary Richard Riley. (Zais wasn't initially invited to the meeting.)

The Palmetto State is one of 27 applying for a waiver in the second round of applications.

(Waivers from some provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have already been granted to several states.)

Duncan was on hand to visit classes and talk about college affordability at Scott's Branch High School in Summerton, S.C., where Clyburn had arranged for the meeting. While Duncan didn't explicitly call for Zais to be invited, when he realized Zais wasn't there he told the group that it's always best to have all parties in the room, even to discuss contentious topics, according to Education Department spokesman Daren Briscoe. Some in the South Carolina education community felt that although several meetings were held to discuss the state's waiver application, it changed little in the months of debate before it was turned in.

When Zais learned of the meeting, he went in and the discussion lasted about 40 minutes, Briscoe said.

"It was a very frank conversation about people's concerns about the process," he said.

After the meeting, Zais said in a statement that stakeholders already had many opportunities to share their concerns about the state's request for flexibility under NCLB.

"The public comment period began on December 16, 2011 and lasted until February 1, 2012, and we received and reviewed approximately 1,100 public comments. We held 22 public meetings including a statewide virtual meeting throughout the state. However, Congressman Clyburn did not attend any of these community stakeholder meetings and few district superintendents did as well," it read.

The statement went on to say that the "education establishment" was trying to hide its activities.

"This goes against the transparency Secretary Duncan has required as part of the waiver process," Zais said. "I hope he will reject today's political stunt by Congressman Clyburn and the education establishment, and give South Carolina's NCLB waiver a fair review."

States will soon get letters from the Education Department about areas of their waivers that could be improved upon. States can then adjust their applications. Duncan makes the final decision on the waivers, although a group of peer reviewers weighs in.

Meanwhile, South Carolina is still steamed over the fact that an appeal of special education spending penalty, filed last August, hasn't been ruled on. South Carolina faces losing $36 million from its federal share of special education dollars this October, and every year after that. The penalty is because of cuts the state made to state special education spending during the 2009-10 school year that the Education Department found were unjustified.

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