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Regents' Approval of Standards Could Help Oklahoma Regain NCLB Waiver


Just a few months ago, Oklahoma became only the second state to loose its waiver from some mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act. But the Sooner State has suddenly found itself in a position to try to regain the flexibility, now that its institutions of higher education have ruled that the state's K-12 standards are rigorous enough to get students ready for college and the workforce.

Oklahoma, which ditched the Common Core State Standards earlier this year, lost its federal flexibility back in August. The reason? In order to get—and keep—an NCLB waiver, states must have college- and career-ready standards. Common core counts, but states can also choose to use their own standards or develop new ones, as long as their postsecondary institutions say that the expectations are high enough that students will graduate from high school ready for college or the workplace. (States including Virginia and Texas successfully went this route.)

After ditching common core, Oklahoma went back to its old standards, which hadn't gotten the seal of approval from the state's colleges by the start of this school year. So the U.S. Department of Education yanked the state's waiver. But on Thursday, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education gave the standards the okay.

So will Oklahoma be able to get its waiver back now? The state certainly intends to try, according to a statement from Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican.

 "The federal government needs to act quickly to ensure our schools do not lose the use of any federal funds," Fallin said. 

The question is how soon the waiver can be reinstated. The Oklahoma Department of Education doesn't think the state would be able to get the flexibility back until the 2015-16 school year, which would leave schools in a holding pattern for the remainder of this academic year. 

(It's noteable that, unlike schools in other waiverless states, schools in Oklahoma don't have to put aside money for tutoring or school choice during the 2014-15 school year, because the state's waiver revocation came so close to the start of the academic year. Schools will have to start putting aside those funds if the state doesn't get its waiver back by next school year.) 

Some advocates in the state, including the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, would like to get the waiver back this academic year, if at all possible. And it sounds like that's what Fallin wants, too.

"We are certainly hoping to receive the waiver as soon as possible and for it to go into effect as soon as possible," said Alex Weintz, a spokesman for the governor, in an email. 

Complicating matters: State chief Janet Barresi, a Republican, lost her primary. So it may well be her successor who helps Oklahoma navigate its way back to federal flexibility. 

UPDATE: Barresi, who has been critical of the state's current standards, released a statement saying Oklahoma would reapply for its flexibility. She said she did not think the waiver could be restored until the 2015-16 school year.

And she added:

"I am confused and unsettled by this decision. My understanding of the definition of college- and career-ready standards is that students who graduate high school should be able to enter college without needing to take remedial coursework or enter a career without the need for retraining. In Oklahoma, our college remediation rate for entering freshman has hovered at about 40 percent for years. With that said, however, I am withholding further comment until I have had time to thoroughly review the Regents' findings."

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