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How Much Political Juice Does the Ed. Dept. Have in NCLB Waiver Renewals?

Congress is moving full steam ahead on a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act that could undo nearly of the Obama administration's K-12 policy priorities, including state goals for student achievement, dramatic school turnarounds, and evaluating teachers through test scores—and maybe even the tests themselves.

But, even the most optimistic prognosticators don't expect the final legislation to make it across the finish line until the summer.

That means states with waivers from the No Child Left Behind law—42 plus the District of Columbia—will still have to negotiate the finer points of their accountability plans with the department for waiver renewals that could last through 2018-19, well beyond the end of the Obama administration.

Already states, including Texas and Maine, have been told they need to make changes to their teacher rating systems—or provide the department with much more information—before submitting their renewal applications at the end of March. Neither state's waiver has been put on high risk status just yet. (More below.)

The administration, though, may be entering into the waiver-renewal process with a severely weakened hand, especially when it comes to holding states' feet to the fire on the policy that seems nearest and dearest to its heart: crafting teacher evaluation systems that take state test scores into account, and align with the administration's vision.

"I think there's going to be so much state pushback on that that the department may have to be open to negotiations on what states put in for teacher evaluation," said Terry Holiday, Kentucky's education commissioner who, coincidentally enough, is testifying at a Senate NCLB reauthorization hearing on Tuesday on teacher quality.

Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, put it more bluntly.

"I don't see the department doing much more to really put the hammer down on states to get their evaluation systems in place," she said. "I don't think [renewal] means states are going to change what they're doing or get in trouble if they don't do what the department says. The secretary is saying pretty please do this, and states are saying thanks for your input, but we're going another direction."

What's more, once the waivers are a thing of the past—either because NCLB has been reauthorized or because a new president has gotten rid of them—states aren't likely to continue with teacher evaluation through outcomes on assessments, Holliday said.

"I think we'd all quickly abandon all the work on tying teacher evaluation to test scores," he said.

Twists and Turns

The department initially drew a hard bargain on teacher evaluation. It yanked Washington's waiver because the state's system didn't require the use of state assessments. And it dragged its feet for over a year on approving Illinois' waiver because the state's timeline didn't conform to the department's vision.

But then, the administration began allowing states to hit the snooze button on their teacher evaluation systems, again and again, when it became increasingly clear that the timeline, and many of its requirements on evaluations, were a tougher lift than anyone expected. (Want to track all the numerous twists and turns? Check out this interactive graphic.)

Indeed, John White, Louisiana's state chief, said it never really made much sense for the department to mandate the same evaluation timeline for everybody.

"The idea that we can somehow just wait for Washington's orders on timelines is ridiculous," he said. "The elephant in the living room is having uniform evaluation policies is absurd."

Maine and Texas

Meanwhile, Texas' education commissioner, Michael Williams, was pretty dismissive of a letter from the department detailing shortcomings in its teacher evaluation system. 

Not everyone is in the mood to flout the department and potentially risk losing a waiver, though. Maine's acting commissioner, Tom Desjardin, is taking a letter from the department on its teacher evaluation seriously. The department is concerned, among other things, that it's unclear whether Maine's teacher evaluation plan takes state scores into account. (Lack of a requirement on state scores is the reason Washington lost its waiver.)

Desjardin is working with state lawmakers to correct the problem, even though he realizes the game may change on him if Congress reauthorizes NCLB soon.

"The timing of this for us is a bit of interesting," given everything that's going on in Washington, he said in an interview. "We're working with the feds to meet the current requirements" so as not to risk losing the waiver. "All we can do is look at the current law and do the best we can to satisfy that."

But Rep. Brian Hubbell, a Democratic state lawmaker, said  he doesn't think the state's waiver is at any real risk. Maine, he said in an interview last week, just need to clarify for the feds that state test scores play a role. In fact, he's introducing a bill this Congress that will push back the state's teacher evaluation timeline, allowing states to continue to pilot their systems next school year.

Who has the cards?

States are moving forward on renewal work, despite the turmoil in Washington, said Carissa Miller, the deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "Until a reauthorization of the ESEA is signed into law, states are following the current law and processes," she said in an email.

And Holliday said, there are going to be clear limits to how much flexibility states can get from the department. Right now, his state is working on its waiver renewal application, due at the end of January.

"I've got an office right beside mine that says 'Don't Enter. This is waiver [renewal] Hell," he said. "They are still asking what we are going to do in 2018, and who knows for sure. Why do we need to know what we're going to do in 2018?" But he's going to have to figure it out, he says, because for now, waivers are the only game in town. "I think we've got some leverage, but I think they still got the cards."

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