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Education Department to Scale Back Key Waiver-Renewal Mandates

UPDATED

Two and a half months after announcing that states would have to jump through more hoops to continue their No Child Left Behind Act flexibility, the U.S. Department of Education is planning to back away from the waiver requirement that states do a better job making sure poor and minority students have equal access to effective teachers, Politics K-12 has learned.

In guidelines released in August that govern the process for renewing a waiver, the department planned to require states, by October 2015, to use teacher-evaluation data to ensure that poor and minority students are not taught by ineffective teachers at a higher rate than their peers. This issue of teacher distribution is a very important one to civil rights groups.

The department also planned to require states and districts to improve the use of federal Title II funds for professional development, with a requirement that districts spend the money on "evidence-based" programs and link them to new college- and career-ready standards. 

Both of those requirements are now going away, department officials confirm. However, they emphasize that this is not a backing away from a strong equity agenda, and that they plan to develop a 50-state strategy that is not limited to the 42 states plus the District of Columbia that have waivers. By the end of January, department officials say, they will have begun a process of putting teeth into existing Title I and Title II laws. (For example, the NCLB law currently requires that states have approved equity plans as part of the "highly qualified" teacher provision.)

And in another important change, the waiver renewals will be for only one year; the original plan was for a two-year extension of the waivers. States will have until the end of February—or 60 days after they get their federal monitoring report—to apply for a waiver extension.

The department is expecting to release the new guidance very soon.  Notably, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is speaking to a gathering of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Richmond, Va., on Friday.

With these changes, the renewal process will be far more streamlined. States will have to address any findings from federal monitoring calls and visits, plus any additional issues the states want to address. The department is still working on data analyses to determine if states are doing a good job identifying the right schools for intervention. And many smaller requirements remain, such as that districts have more responsibility in turning around schools.

For the Council of Chief State School Officers, this latest course correction is a good one. Chris Minnich, the group's executive director, said the CCSSO believes firmly in the equity agenda and that its states are already working on it. But using waivers to advance it was the wrong mechanism, he said. 

"This has little to do with backing away from anything," he said, adding that CCSSO will work with the department on the 50-state strategy. "The states are very committed to this agenda."

While states will likely cheer a far-easier renewal process, this is likely to anger civil rights groups that have been pressing the Education Department to do more to address teacher-distribution issues.

"The 50-state strategy should have been started 12 years ago," said Kate Tromble,  the director of legislative affairs for the Education Trust. "It's disappointing and it sends a message that it's not at the top of their agenda."

What's more, Tromble said, the department wasn't asking states to make big changes to how they deploy teachers, but instead to draft plans about how to improve teacher distribution. So in terms of the department's new 50-state strategy, she said the first steps are to ensure states are collecting data on how teachers are distributed within and among schools, and develop strategies to make sure poor and minority students have equal access to the most effective educators.

The department has had opportunity to pursue this agenda in the past, but such efforts have lacked a lot of teeth. The NCLB law nibbled around the edges of the problem. And the 2009 economic-stimulus package did, for the first time, put the word "effectiveness" into federal legislation, by making teacher effectiveness one of the four pillars that would govern the spending of $100 billion in education stimulus aid. Also, in the Race to the Top competitive-grant program, teacher distribution became one of many criteria on which states were judged.

The waiver renewals, however, marked the first significant opportunity for the department to put pressure on most states to address a key problem in K-12.

But such a requirement also piled a significant amount of work on states already grappling with implementing the Common Core State Standards and new teacher-evaluation systems linked to student growth. The department has already relaxed part of its teacher-evaluation timeline to address these concerns. 

Department officials acknowledged that it may have been a bit short-sighted to pursue such an aggressive agenda in a waiver-renewal process. They said they decided to make this change after they released the guidance in August, got feedback, and recognized what states were doing and the heavy lift already going on in K-12.

In some of the first Congressional reaction, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said he generally supports this change in the process. Nevertheless, she said,  "Chairman Harkin is committed to continued oversight on how the waivers agreements are impacting students and will closely monitor the department's proposed 50 state strategy to ensure that states are on a path to achieving an equitable distribution of effective teachers, as it is critical that all students have equal access to high-quality instruction."

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