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Five Takeaways From the Education Department's NCLB Waiver About-Face

Wednesday we told you about the big changes the U.S. Department of Education was making to the process states are undertaking to renew their No Child Left Behind Act waivers. No longer will states have to come up with plans to improve the spending of federal professional development money and the distribution of effective teachers to poor and minority children.

Here are five key takeaways from this latest move: 

1. States are in the driver's seat. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had already given away the store—from $100 billion in economic-stimulus aid to waivers to virtually all states (with some notable exceptions, like California). He has little leverage left to advance his agenda, so he's trying to protect it. It's not in Duncan's best interests to start revoking a bunch of waivers. States, especially when they act as a unified front, have considerable power now—and they did not like the big strings the secretary originally attached to waiver renewals. 

2. The Education Department seems to be, at times, flying by the seat of its pants. On waivers alone, the department has already issued a one-year extension for teacher-evaluation implementation, and is now back-tracking on renewal rules it issued just two months ago. Did federal officials underestimate the pushback? And will they make the mistake again?

3. The department's decision may be linked to the current battle in states over the common core. Many states are encountering resistance as they seek to implement the common standards and are left to refute the argument that federal officials are mandating them. Piling on more federal mandates that seek to get at which teachers teach at which schools may only fuel fires. Duncan wants to see the common core succeed; and he wants to see waivers succeed.

4. Whatever this 50-state strategy is that the department is touting to address teacher distribution, it should probably have some serious teeth in it given how upset civil rights groups are over this change of heart. And, the department has said that it will have something concrete in the works by the end of January—which is no doubt a deadline the advocacy community will hold officials to.

5. Most importantly, and for better or for worse, the U.S. Department of Education is making it far simpler for states to get a waiver extension. I'd be surprised if anyone loses a waiver at this point. What started out as a 13-page document of requirements has been turned into a two-page letter. The department, in the new guidance, simply asks states to write a letter asking for an extension, explain why the flexibility has helped, and to resolve in the letter or otherwise any monitoring problems federal officials uncovered. By contrast, the August guidance wanted a litany of things, from the teacher-distribution plans to more concrete ideas for intervening in schools with poorly performing subgroups. Those things could come up in a state's monitoring report from the feds and have to be resolved anyway, but we don't know that. Compare both of the guidance documents below:

New guidance

Old guidance

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