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Oklahoma Loses Waiver Over Academic Standards; Indiana, Kansas Waivers Extended

Nearly three months after Oklahoma dropped the Common Core State Standards, officials at the U.S. Department of Education on Thursday revoked the state's No Child Left Behind Act waiver, saying its academic standards do not prepare students for college or a career.

The announcement marks the second time the Education Department has rejected a state's request to extend its flexibility from the NCLB law—it revoked Washington state's waiver in April over a teacher-evaluation issue.

The announcement also included one-year waiver extensions for Indiana and Kansas. Indiana similarly backpedalled from the Common Core State Standards, but has since replaced them with a slightly altered version.

"Since its initial approval for [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] flexibility, Oklahoma can no longer demonstrate that it has college- and career-ready standards in place, a key principle of ESEA flexibility," a press release from the Education Department read.

The department noted that it's providing Oklahoma with additional time to implement supplemental educational services, such as after-school tutoring and public school choice, which are required under the NCLB law that Oklahoma must now transition back to no later than the start of the 2015-2016 school year.

A senior department official said on a press call late this afternoon that if Oklahoma is able to adopt a new set of standards deemed college- and career-ready—and it doesn't have to be the common core—that the department will work with the state to reinstate its waiver.

"This decision by the federal government is disappointing and frustrating," Oklahoma state education chief Janet Barresi said in a statement. "Oklahoma has made significant strides forward in strengthening our schools, progress that has largely been possible because of the flexibility of the waiver. The loss of the waiver will be a significant challenge for our districts and schools, as well as for this state agency."

Oklahoma might have seen this coming.

Shortly after the state dropped the common core, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that Oklahoma and other states that back out of the standards can stay in the department's good graces, as long as they replace those standards with another set that will get students ready for college and the workforce.

Oklahoma has yet to do this.

In June, Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, signed a bill to replace the common core. But only on Wednesday did the Oklahoma Board of Education create a steering committee to develop the process for replacing the standards, according to a story by the Associated Press.

The story goes on to say that board members underscored that the creation of the steering committee is "merely an interim step" in crafting the new standards, and they haven't set a deadline for themselves.

Fallin, who previously had praised the common core and defended them from political attacks, eventually did an about-face after pressure mounted from conservative advocacy groups, like American Principles in Action, and momentum built within the Republican Party to oppose the standards.

The legislation Fallin signed in June, House Bill 3399, calls for the state to adopt new academic standards by Aug. 1, 2016. Any new standards the state tries to adopt, however, will have a rough road to implementation.

Although the Oklahoma state board must adopt the new standards, in consultation with the state Regents for Higher Education, the state Board of Career and Technology Education, and others, the bill gives the legislature final authority over whether the new standards can actually be put into effect.

Specifically, the bill says that the legislature must formally adopt the standards by a joint resolution before the state education department can implement them. As my colleague Andrew Ujifusa astutely noted in a previous blog post, that could be a method for lawmakers to ensure that the state board doesn't simply re-adopt large portions of the common core, or virtually all of it.

Oklahoma is certainly not the only waiver state to walk back its adoption of the common-core standards.

Indiana took similar action this spring, when the State Board of Education voted April 28 to adopt new English/language arts and math standards to replace its 2010 adoption of the common core. And in June (just days before Oklahoma dropped the standards) South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, signed a law that commits the state to write new standards to replace the common core.

However, big differences exist in how those states went about un-adopting the standards.

Indiana's new standards are a hybrid of the common core and prior state standards, and analysts have remarked that these new standards are in large part very similar, if not identical, to the common core in many areas. Most importantly, the state's higher education institutions signed off that they are college- and career-ready, and Indiana is already using them for this school year.

In South Carolina, the law requires the Palmetto State to design new academic standards for the 2015-16 school year, but the common core will remain in effect for 2014-15. The Education Department extended South Carolina's waiver in July.

Oklahoma's law, on the other hand, repealed the common core entirely and shifted the state back to its previous state academic standards, which the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education have not yet certified as college- and career-ready.

"When [South Carolina] passed its legislation, they didn't drop the standards immediately," explained Anne Hyslop, senior education policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners. "In Oklahoma, they wanted to defect immediately. They said, 'We are dropping common core. It's gone, see ya. We're going back to the old standards.'"

In a statement addressing the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education's standards certification process, Angela Caddell, associate vice chancelor for communications, said, "While a prescribed timeline isn't viable given the nature of the work required to complete a thorough standards assessment, each step of this review will be executed as efficiently as possible without sacrificing the integrity of the process."

It shouldn't come as a surprise to Oklahoma education officials that the Education Department doesn't consider its standards up to snuff.

When the state first dropped the common core, Duncan took a dig at the Sooner State, noting that some 40 percent of its high school graduates have to take remedial classes once they enroll in college because K-12 schools didn't prepare them for the challenges of higher education. That's a big waste of time and money, he said.

That being said, Hyslop noted that several waiver states, including Minnesota, Texas, and Virginia have already gotten their own standards approved as college- and career-ready.

"The threshold for approving standards as college- and career-ready, if they're not the common core, isn't particularly high," Hyslop said. "Literally, all you have to do is get [the state institution of higher education] to write a letter approving them. It's just a piece of paper."

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think-tank that supports the common-core standards, was in Oklahoma last week and said the denied waiver extension would come as little surprise for education officials there.

"That said, the department has no legal authority to demand states use college- and career-ready standards," he said. "I think the Education Department is way out on a limb legally and I think this was a huge unforced error on their part. They could have quite easily said to Oklahoma, 'You need to work quickly to come up with a set of college- and career-ready standards. We'll give you six months, a year, but ... this was just a terrible decision."

Despite the fact that the Education Department doesn't require states to adopt the common core in order to maintain a waiver, the decision to pull Oklahoma's waiver after it dropped the common core fuels Republican claims that the Obama administration is forcing states to implement national standards. Those sentiments boiled over this week when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, sued the department and Sec. Duncan for their role in forcing states to adopt the standards and aligned assessments.

"It's not smart politics to feed this narrative that the Education Department is driving this train," Petrilli said.

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