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Education Department Grants One-of-a-Kind NCLB Leeway to Tribal School

First it was states. Then it was a collection of districts. Now the U.S. Department of Education is taking the unusual step of giving a single, tribal school flexibility from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.

To be sure, the waiver for Miccosukee Indian School in Florida looks pretty different from the comprehensive flexibility that the Education Department has granted at the state, and, in one isolated case, district levels. The waiver will allow the school to come up with its own definition of adequate yearly progress or AYP. That doesn't mean Miccosukee neccessarily gets wiggle room from other parts of NCLB. And it's hard to imagine a single school coming up with a list of schools for intensive turnaround, because after all ... it's just one campus.

And, of course, it's not just any school. The school is operated by the Bureau of Indian Education or BIE, which is under the Department of Interior and generally serves students living on tribal lands. The school serves just 150 students, but it's the only school that's dedicated to the Miccosukee Indian Tribe. The department, in fact, described the waiver as for a "tribe" rather than for a school.

Florida—like 41 other states and the District of Columbia—already has an NCLB waiver, but the BIE does not. It applied, back in September of 2012, but its application is still under review, which means that there's likely a major hold-up. 

The one-of-a-kind tribal or school waiver calls for high standards but includes a focus on culturally relevant content, including proficiency in the Miccosukee language.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opened the door for other tribes to get similar flexibility.

"We want to have more tribes step up and have high standards," he said at a press conference at the Interior Department announcing the flexibility. "We hope this will not be our last announcement. We would love to do more of this going forward."

The waiver comes amid a flood of attention for BIE schools, which have long flown under the federal radar. Last year, for instance, the Obama administration floated a plan to restructure the agency, which has faced persistent problems, according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm. The administration also made $4 million in competitive grants available to revamp schools serving Native American students. And the House education committee has begun to hold hearings on the population.

There are some obvious questions about the logistics of granting flexibility to a single school. What if a charter school in, say, Iowa, which still has a pending waiver application, wants the same thing? Does the Education Department have to take its request seriously? Or is this more limited flexibility just for BIE schools, as Duncan seemed to imply during the press conference?

Plus, the only district level NCLB waiver, the so-called "CORE waiver" for a collection of California districts, hasn't seen smooth-sailing—right now it's the only waiver on high-risk status.

Duncan, however, said he has "tremendous confidence" in the tribe to use the flexibility to close achievement gaps.

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