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Is NCLB Waiver Renewal the Next Big Issue?

Two more states—Alabama and New Hampshire—are about to get waivers from requirements under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, sources say. (Expect an announcement sometime very soon.) That will bring the grand total to ... 39 states, plus the District of Columbia. So almost everyone. (But, notably, not big juggernauts California and Texas.)UPDATE: Alabama's waiver is official. New Hampshire may have to wait till next week.

One big question going forward, especially in light of this week's announcement on the teacher-evaluation timeline in the waivers: What happens with waiver renewal?

After all, the waivers are only set to be in place for two years, and it's unclear if Brokedown Congress will get its act together to pass a rewrite. (More on the politics at play here.) So it's possible that waiver renewal—not reauthorization—could be the Obama administration's next chance to put its stamp on the No Child Left Behind Act, the current iteration of ESEA.

Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the House education committee, is already beginning to think about how the department could use the waiver renewal process to ensure states step it up on graduation rates and following through when it comes to subgroup accountability, he told me yesterday. Miller is early to the waiver renewal dance (some half a dozen states are still waiting for their original waivers), but it's an emerging issue.

Miller, one of the few key architects of NCLB left in Congress, is hawkish when it comes to federal responsibility for subgroup students (English-language learners, students in special education, etc.) The graduation-rate issue isn't entirely new, he's already raised some concerns about that (more here.)

And now he's expressed worry about supersubgroups—which allow states to combine a bunch of different populations (ELLs, special ed. kids, racial minorities) into one big group for accountability purposes. The majority of waiver states are using some sort of subgroup conglomeration system, so any tweaks or additional scrutiny on super or combined subgroups might impact a lot of states.

With supersubgroups, there's the potential to "lessen the accountability for each and every student," Miller said. "We've communicated our concerns to the [U.S. Secretary of Education], to the department. We will be paying close attention on waiver renewal."

Miller's party may be in the minority right now, but he's got a longer record on K-12 policy than nearly anyone else in Congress. And, as a key ally of the administration on education issues, what he says will carry weight.

Of course, there will also be lots of pressure on the department to let states keep their waivers, without big changes. It's something to keep an eye on.

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