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In Surprise Move, Texas to Apply for NCLB Waiver

Putting it mildly, Texas likes to do its own thing. And that includes in K-12 education. The Lone Star State has shunned Race to the Top, refused to join the vast majority of other states in adopting the Common Core State Standards, and has been unenthusiastic about the offer of flexibility under No Child Left Behind.

Until now.

In surprise move today, the state said it is finally going to ask the federal government for a waiver under NCLB.

UPDATE: There is a very important caveat. Texas is not applying for the formal waiver that the department has spelled out, but as is the Texas way, wants to create its own waiver proposal. "This allows us to define the waiver request without agreeing to the strings that were attached to the NCLB waiver," Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe told me. (This is the route California wants to take, too.)

But will the department will go along a waiver proposal that's outside their structured process, giving flexibility without strings? Probably not. Last year, federal department spokesman Justin Hamilton said that the waivers were a "Plan B" if Congress could not reauthorize the law, and that there was no "Plan C." "This will give all states the option of either complying with existing law or participating in plan B," he said at the time.

Texas is seeking public comment in advance of its waiver proposal, and maintains that it can already fulfill the chief requirements the feds are requiring for the flexibility: college- and career-ready standards (common core, per se, is not required), a differentiated school accountability system, and a system of teacher evaluations that incorporate student performance.

Until today, the official line from the Texas Education Agency on NCLB waivers has been that the state was still "weighing its options," spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe told me back in March.

Since then, two big things have changed: There's a new state schools' chief in tea party activist Michael Williams, and the U.S. Department of Education is pursuing district-level waivers for states that don't end up getting a waiver.

Did either one of these things influence the state's decision?

UPDATE: Ratcliffe said that the Texas department waited until its new commissioner arrived. "This was his decision," she said, noting that his first day on the job was Tuesday.

It may have helped that Education Secretary Arne Duncan sat down with sometimes-adversary Rick Perry, the Republican governor, in March to talk about the waiver. He assured state officials that no, they didn't have to adopt the common core to get a waiver—which has been one of the state's chief concerns.

Today is, incidentally, the deadline for third-round waiver requests. A few, including from Hawaii, are trickling in. But the department reiterated today that they will work with states on a rolling basis into the school year. So far, 33 states plus the District of Columbia have won waivers.

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