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Vermont to Reconsider ESEA Waiver

Vermont's governor and state board of education are weighing whether to continue with the process of applying for a waiver from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, after the back-and-forth exchange with the U.S. Department of Education has led the state to stray far from the original proposal it sold to stakeholders.

The Green Mountain State was one of 26 (plus DC) to submit a waiver request to the department in February. But the draft of the state's waiver plan posted on the department's website is actually Vermont's second go-round. After months of outreach, the state had developed a plan that would have called for using state assessments every other year, instead of annually. On the "off-years," Vermont wanted to use local tests and other measures to gauge student achievement.

Vermont had been told by outside experts that its proposal would be seen as "the first volley on reauthorization" of the ESEA.

That wasn't a role Vermont wanted to play, said John Fischer, the state's deputy commissioner of education.

"We did not want to be a volley for reauthorization," he wrote in an email. "We wanted the [U.S. Department of Education] to take our proposal seriously. We had great state support including our Governor, Commissioner, State Board of Education and stakeholders."

So the state submitted its "outside the box" proposal a couple weeks early because "we were ready to submit and we suspected opposition...so we wanted that word sooner than later," Fischer wrote.

The request didn't fly with department officials. "They did not see [local testing in off-years] as a valid and reliable measure of student growth," Fischer said. Instead, the department encouraged Vermont to come up with another plan before the official, Feb. 28 deadline.

Green Mountain State officials spent ten days working on a new application, no easy task, Fischer said.

"It was kind of a mini-Race to the Top for us," he said.

The department responded with a long list of queries. The state and the feds have been going back and forth ever since, through several draft versions of the waiver, bringing the state further and further from its original vision.

Fischer had very kind words for the folks at the department, who he said have been "phenomenal" to work with. But the department's model for a post-No Child Left Behind accountability system is very different from what stakeholders in Vermont have said they want to see, he added.

Now Vermont is considering backing out of the waiver process altogether, Fischer said. The state board is slated to meet next week to figure out whether to keep going with the waiver process, discontinue it, or wait for a future submission date, he said.

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