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The Good Kind of Waiver

It's no secret that I've been displeased with the Obama administration's NCLB waiver strategy. I think the decision to make waiver relief conditional on states embracing provisions that exist nowhere within the statute is a troubling, unsettling course.

Anyway, I'm happy to report that the administration has also announced a less-ballyhooed but more promising waiver push; one intended to reduce the burdens of federal red tape. Where the President's NCLB waiver agenda imposes brand-new mandates in return for flexibility, this other effort focuses on finding less onerous, more performance-based ways to report on current spending.

At a time when states and districts are strapped for cash, one obvious tack is to let officials spend dollars in smart, cost-effective ways. In a February memo the President noted as much, and asked federal agencies to see what they could do to help. The Department of Education has launched a process intended to provide relief when it comes to the ludicrous time-and-effort reporting currently demanded by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-87 as well as similar record-keeping and reporting requirements. ED will be offering flexibility to pilot efforts in states or districts which agree to ensure appropriate use of federal funds in more results-based ways, for instance, the Department notes, "by measuring outputs or improvements in student achievement associated with Federal investments."

Happily, unlike with the NCLB waivers, this process is not being used to quietly advance a particular agenda. As one administration source explained, "The accountability being provided in exchange for flexibility is not the RTT agenda; we are trading off better but vanilla reporting on outcomes for reduced cruddy reporting on inputs." The idea is to shift accountability from inputs to outputs, reducing the burdens associated with minutely tracking time and spending in return for better, more useful data on outcomes.

Right now, districts spend enormous time and energy tracking the "time-and-effort" of staff, fearing that not doing so will result in a bad audit. The irony, as an OMB official told me, is "Every district has to do this and do it for every federal program. It's not only burdensome but there's confusion about how it works. Are you trying to track back to the source of the dollars, or who the money is spent on, or how it's spent? One of the biggest sources of [Inspector General] findings is noncompliance with time-and-effort requirements. Usually it's because the documentation isn't there--not because something bad happened or because the district has misspent money, but because they don't have all the papers in order." That encourages officials to manage defensively and inefficiently, with one eye on the piles of regs and the other on the reporting requirements.

The official elaborated, "Districts have to report which teachers are funded with federal dollars and certify that that teacher is still working there. There are biweekly reports in which the teacher has to say 'I spent X percent of my time on Title I, IDEA, p.d., and so on.' All this reporting is only there to show that federal dollars go to fund this teacher who teaches this child. And then we hope there's a good result. We're saying, 'Why don't we instead focus on the results, and assume that [satisfactory] results mean the district is spending the dollars in the right way.' Instead of focusing on proxies for accountability, let's shift it to real accountability."

Like I said, this is the good kind of waiver. Kudos to ED (and OMB) for a promising start. Now the question is whether this effort bears fruit. We'll just wait and see, I suppose.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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