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Will Nebraska Apply for a No Child Left Behind Act Waiver?

UPDATED

Some states that initially applied for, but didn't get, waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act—specifically California, North Dakota, and Vermont—now say they dodged a bullet. But at least one state that never sought the flexibility from NCLB's mandates is contemplating getting in on the waiver action: Nebraska.

Nebraska has long had an independent streak when it comes to accountability. Back in 2007, the state clashed with the U.S. Department of Education over its system of local tests. And it's one of just four states that never adopted the Common Core State Standards, in either math or reading.

So far, Nebraska is one of just two states to have sat out the Obama administration's waiver process entirely. Montana seems to be other. (California, North Dakota, and Vermont withdrew their applications when they couldn't come to an accord with the feds over an accountability plan.)

Nebraska's waiver bid isn't a done deal yet—the state is still trying to figure out how closely its current plans on accountability match up with the federal parameters, said Rachel Wise, the president of the state board.

But, at its most recent state board meeting earlier this month, the Cornhusker State laid out a tentative timeline for a possible waiver application—officials are hoping to have a draft ready to examine and share with educators and others in the state sometime in February. If the state decides to move forward, its application could be ready to go by March or April.

Matthew Blomstedt, the education commissoner, will do much of the legwork on the draft application, but the decision of whether or not to apply will ultimately be the state board's.

So why go after a waiver at this point?

Put simply, Wise said, Nebraska is tired of having two separate tracks for accountability, one state and one federal.

"Many of us believe that it would make more sense to communicate to parents and schools that there is one system," she said.

Blomstedt seconded that sentiment, and said it will help the state just to go through the waiver application process.

"Everyone is saying that even if NCLB gets reauthorized it may be two years out," he said. "We have some obligation to express what Nebraska's plan is relative to the conversation at a national level."

Many waiver states participated in the process to give districts control over the part of their federal Title I funding that has to be set-aside for school choice and tutoring under NCLB. That's a consideration too, Blomstedt said. More importantly, districts are continuing to struggle with implementing those interventions, including sorting out which tutoring providers offer a high-quality of service, he said.

What's more, Wise thinks some of the policies that waiver states must embrace—like working with their institutions of higher education to make sure their standards are rigorous, if they aren't participating in common core—make a lot of sense.

"That makes the process that we do better," she said. "Why would we not add a step of validation?"

And, like states that already have waivers, Nebraska is also trying to figure out how to do more to incorporate student outcomes in teacher evaluation systems, Wise said.

It's unclear if the Cornhusker State and the feds are closely aligned on teacher evaluation. A handful of Nebraska districts are implementing changes to teacher performance systems outlined in a framework developed by the state board of education. The framework is entirely optional, districts can choose to adopt it, or not.  And for now, the Nebraska framework looks different from the Obama administration's teacher evaluation requirements for waiver states.

Still, the state has taken notice of some of the additional flexibility the Education Department has offered when it comes to educator evaluation, including allowing states extra time on incorporating test scores into teacher evaluations, Blomstedt said. (More in this story from the Lincoln Journal Star).

Nebraska isn't planning, however, to stray far from its own vision for school improvement in order to get the federal flexibility, Wise said.

"The things we are doing we are doing for Nebraska," she said. "We are not changing the way we do things to request a waiver."

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