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Iowa Turned Down for ESEA Waiver

Iowa's bid for a waiver from certain requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act has gotten the thumbs-down from the U.S. Department of Education, according to a letter sent to Jason Glass, the state's director of education Thursday. Iowa is the first state to be turned down for a waiver, although at least one other state—Vermont—decided to drop out of the process altogether.

In turning down the bid, the Education Department decided that Iowa's state education agency did not have the authority to enforce the requirement that teachers and principals be evaluated in part on student outcomes. In fact, state lawmakers passed a measure stating that any changes to the state's teacher evaluation system must get legislative approval, which added an extra stumbling block, Glass said in an interview.

"That created an unworkable situation," Glass said. "We've been negotiating with the U.S. Department of Education to try to find a way through this. It's just not possible. We are very disappointed that our state is [still] under the onerous shame and blame policies of NCLB for another year."

And he said state lawmakers were warned "numerous times" that their legislation could jeopardize the state's waiver bid. Still, he pointed out that the department's letter left the door open. "The letter very carefully does not say 'denied'" he noted. "It says 'cannot be approved at this time.'" That means there is hope that if the legislature acts, Iowa could still get its waiver down the road, Glass added. Iowa's legislature isn't in session.

The letter is a big deal, because the department made certain that every state that applied in the first round, announced earlier this year, eventually got a waiver (Ten were approved altogether; New Mexcio was a little behind the curve, but eventually got the go-ahead.) And earlier this month, eight additional states got waivers—although the majority of them were Race to the Top winners who have already pledged to take a lot of the steps the department has called for in its conditional waiver plan.

Turning down Iowa's waiver could be a bold political move on the department's part. First off, it's a swing state that President Barack Obama is actively courting in his re-election bid. Plus, Iowa's congressional delegation includes the most powerful member of Congress when it comes to education issues: U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, who oversees both the committee that sets K-12 policy, and the panel that decides on education spending.

Harkin was not initially a big fan of the waiver program in general—and he had hoped to get a reuthorization of the NCLB law done by Christmas, in time to put a halt to the administration's plan. His K-12 policy committee approved a bill, which three Republicans supported, this fall. But the full Senate never acted—and now his home state is stuck with NCLB for the foreseeable future.

Iowa's experience "is another example of why [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] needs to be reauthorized, so all states can receive the relief they need from the current requirements of No Child Left Behind," Sen. Harkin said in a statement. And it sounds like he hasn't given up hope that Congress can come together. "I continue to support a bipartisan reauthorization such as the bill we voted out ... this fall."

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