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Are States Leaning on Waivers From Past Law for Their New Education Plans?

Coronado, Calif.

The Every Student Succeeds Act hasn't been the only time in the last few years that events in Washington led states to rethink their accountability and other education policies.

Yes, we're talking about those waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act that the Obama administration gave out to most states. So while we were out here for the Education Commission of the States conference, we thought we would ask a few state chiefs (and a former chief who stepped down last month) whether they were drawing heavily on those waivers from the previously federal K-12 law for their Every Student Succeeds Act plans.

The short answer seems to be: They are leaning a fair amount on their waiver plans and other work that was going on when waivers were handed out. However, the chiefs were also quick to point out that they are rethinking at least a few high-profile policies, like school improvement, thanks to ESSA's flexibility for states.

Of course, the circumstances surrounding the NCLB waivers and ESSA are much different. Just to name an obvious example, the Obama administration gave out waivers on certain conditions, such as how states dealt with content standards. There's not the same kind of carrot-and-stick dynamic with these plans.

And the chiefs we talked to say they aren't relying too much on technical support or guidance from the U.S. Department of Education in developing their plans, or taking a "Mother may I?" approach.

Melody Schopp, South Dakota's superintendent, dismissed the idea that completely ripping up her state's waiver in the name of creating an innovative ESSA plan is smart.

"I don't think it has to be different. ... I think we took the best out of the waiver, and then shaped it into making sure it [uses] multiple measures and growth" for accountability, Schopp said. (Schopp is the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers.) "We haven't really done a whole lot of interaction" with the Education Department about the state's ESSA plan, Schopp said. And when asked if the department's public feedback on other ESSA plans would influence what went into South Dakota's plan, Schopp responded, "Absolutely not."

Tony Evers, Wisconsin's superintendent, said that the ESSA plan the state is developing is "pretty similar to our waiver." But the state will tackle school improvement differently, he stressed, and will also establish longterm academic goals that will be much more useful than during the NCLB era. "I don't want to overpromise to people. It's going to look a lot like it did before," Evers said.

In Mississippi, the state didn't have its strategic plan for education fully fleshed out when it received its NCLB waiver, said state chief Carey Wright. While ESSA is making the state change how it thinks about English-language learners and (as in Wisconsin) school improvement, Wright said, "We're not veering from our strategic plan, because we feel very strongly that it's getting us where it needs to be."

Both Evers and Wright said they haven't been burning up the phone lines to Washington to check with the Education Department about how they should think about developing their plans.

Although she wasn't discussing her state's waiver specifically, Hanna Skandera, who left the top job at New Mexico's education department in June, said she was taken aback by the department's concerns about using advanced coursework as an accountability measure for ESSA. She noted that New Mexico has used Advanced Placement courses for accountability for the last six years, and advanced coursework is part of the state's ESSA plan. (New Mexico first got a waiver from NCLB in 2012.)

"What's going on here? This just does not make sense, from my view," Skandera said.

Wyoming did not receive a waiver from the NCLB law, but state chief Jillian Balow said that for several years her state told schools and the public not to worry about things like adequate yearly progress, the yardstick under that version of the law. While she said the state doesn't plan on radically changing course from its ongoing work, the amount of interest and work that have gone into things like ESSA's school quality indicator and English-learners has surprised her.

"I did not realize, even though they were minor changes, how significant the conversations around those was," Balow said.


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