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At Long Last, Illinois Approved for No Child Left Behind Waiver

At long last, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has granted his home state of Illinois a waiver from some mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Land of Lincoln first applied for the flexibility way back in February of 2012. And it watched as 42 other states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and even a cadre of districts in California got waivers.

So what was the big stumbling block all this time? As my colleague, Michele McNeil reported in this story it was, essentially, a question of one year. An Illinois state law, passed in 2010 before the administration even unveiled plans for NCLB waivers, called for full implementation of a new teacher evaluation system in all school districts by the 2016-17 school year.

That's one year later than for other waiver states, which are supposed to fully implement their plans—meaning give every teacher in the state an evaluation that's based in part on student progress—by the 2015-16 school year.

Complicating matters: As Illinois' waiver bid languished, the department gave states that already had waivers in hand some flexibility with the 2015-16 deadline. States still had to fully implement their plans—meaning give every teacher an evaluation—but they didn't actually have to use these evaluations for hiring, firing or promotions until the 2016-17 school year. Since Illinois didn't have a waiver by the time that flexibility was announced, the state wasn't eligible for this "waiver waiver." Illinois thought that the new flexibility would help speed their waiver along, but no dice. Until now.

Back in October, Illinois state officials predicted that they would secure the flexibility in time for the start of the 2014-15 school year, in part because federal officials would have had time to see that the state was faithfully implementing its teacher evaluation system. It turns out they were right.

Interestingly, Duncan largely steered clear of saying much about the timeline in his letter to Illinois. The letter says only that the department will also be watching closely to ensure that Illinois' new accountability system doesn't mask the performance of subgroup students.

Still, the approval is a big departure, said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation and all-around waiver wizard.

"One of the only things in the waivers that has been a hard and fast rule is that, by 2015-16, you need to have a teacher-evaluation system in place," Hyslop said. "Are we seeing willingness to negotiate on the timeline that we haven't seen before?"

Hyslop guessed that the decision for Illinois could have implications for the four states that have been placed on high-risk status—Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, and even Washington, the state that seems closest to having its flexibility yanked. Of course, in Washington's case, lawmakers weren't even able to come to an agreement to require the use of state assessment results for teacher evaluation by 2017-18, a year later than the timeline that has now been okayed for Illinois.

So will the decision on the Land of Lincoln give Washington some breathing room (i.e. an additional year to get it together, while remaining on high risk status)? Or will Duncan giveth and then taketh away?  Stay tuned.

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