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Arizona and Education Department in NCLB Waiver Standoff

Arizona may be the next state headed toward high-risk status for its No Child Left Behind Act waiver after it submitted a final draft of its accountability system—a plan that does not meet federal demands on high school graduation rates or teacher evaluations.

When Arizona won its NCLB waiver in mid-2012, the federal approval came with two stipulations: that the state increase the weight of graduation rates in its high school rating system, and that it use student growth on state tests as required by federal rules as part of its teacher-evaluation system.

After months of back-and-forth, those conditions still exist. And, it looks like they may not get resolved. State officials are currently waiting to see how the department responds to their last proposal, drafted after negotiations with federal officials. Already, three states—Kansas, Oregon, and Washington—are on high-risk status after federal officials determined they didn't meet their conditions on teacher evaluations. Ultimately, states can lose their waivers if they don't meet federal conditions.

The issue in Arizona, at least for graduation rates, boils down to 5 percentage points. Arizona weights graduation rates at 15 percent in its new school grading system; the feds (who are under pressure from advocacy groups to improve high school accountability) want 20 percent. The rest of a high school's grades in Arizona are based on other academic or college- and career-readiness factors, such as test scores.

But in an interview, State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, an elected Republican, said Arizona wanted to concentrate on more on just the number. "Just because you have a warm body and you put a diploma in their hands you haven't done them any favors," he said in an interview.

The second area in which the state and federal officials seem to be at a stalemate is teacher evaluations. Changing Arizona's teacher-evaluation system to meet federal guidelines has proven even more difficult, because the state started its new method for judging educators back in 2010, before waivers even came along. Now, the state and federal officials are arguing over how Arizona should measure student growth and the role of state assessments in teacher evaluations.

"We are so far ahead, and now our rules don't fit the federal guidelines. We're not going to keep changing our rules," said Karla Phillips, the director of cross-divisional initiatives.

Overall, Huppenthal is highly critical of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's promise of flexibility, which comes with a slew of requirements favored by the Obama administration. Those requirements include what some view as prescriptive solutions for school turnarounds and teacher-evaluation systems in particular.

"We just think the federal department of education needs to up its game in terms of how this is all going to work to improve education," Huppenthal said.

UPDATE 9/12, 9:47 A.M.: From the department's standpoint, they are holding Arizona to promises it made in its original application. What's more, department officials reiterate that this flexibility is optional. "States are not required to choose that path as we all wait for reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Arizona committed to the requirements in its approved request, and we are holding all states accountable for the commitments that they made.

Now, Huppenthal says he's facing a Hobson's choice. Either he gives the feds what they want, compromising what he says he believes is best for the state. Or, he refuses to give in and is left with nothing—which means he has to abide by NCLB as written.

"We would end up with 80 percent of our schools in school improvement," he said. "It adds a lot of bureaucratic choices. We are faced with a policy dilemma and we have two environments that are very distasteful."

So the Arizona education department is trying to get a sense from its 500 districts what they want—federal strings and flexibility, or NCLB. Phillips said districts' No. 1 concern is the requirement that schools that fail to hit academic goals under NCLB must set aside 15 percent of their Title I funds for tutoring.

This game of chicken between Arizona and the department illustrates an important question: Who has the leverage now? Duncan clearly has the outright power to grant and revoke waivers, but he has also has said he would rather partner with states rather than take away the flexibility. Plus, if Duncan started revoking waivers, there would likely be political ramifications as well. Republicans are already accusing Duncan of overstepping his authority by granting the waivers, and revoking the flexibility would likely add fuel to that fire.

So, can the two sides come to an agreement that lets the Duncan and his department save face while giving Arizona most of what it wants? Is there a path to compromise?

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