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Waive Goodbye: Why Washington Lost Its NCLB Waiver

Note: Andrew Saultz, assistant professor of educational leadership at Miami University of Ohio, is guest posting this week.

Back in April, Washington State received notice from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that it would not receive a waiver for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for the 2014-2015 school year. I became interested in what happened in Washington, since it was the first state to have its waiver revoked. So, I reached out to officials in the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, officials in the Governor's Office, and other educational policymakers in Washington to hear their reactions and explanations.

NCLB waivers

In 2011, the US Department of Education (USDOE) announced that states would have the opportunity to apply for flexibility in the form of a waiver from NCLB.  The rationale for this was that Congress had failed to act to reauthorize ESEA and that the upcoming 2014 deadline for states to have 100 percent of students proficient in math and reading was not realistic. The original USDOE announcement listed four principles that states needed to meet in order to receive a waiver:

  1. College and career expectations for all students.
  2. A system of differentiated recognition, accountability and support for Title I districts.
  3. Develop, adopt and implement teacher and principal evaluation and support systems for student achievement.
  4. Provide an assurance that it will evaluate and revise its administrative requirements to reduce duplication and unnecessary burden on districts and schools.  

Washington background

While the USDOE originally granted Washington a NCLB waiver in 2012, it was clear that the federal government wanted Washington to alter its teacher evaluation system in a very specific way. This issue was pervasive in the Race to the Top application as well, as Washington wanted more time than the USDOE wanted to give to implement the newly proposed system.

In 2013, the USDOE put Washington on high-risk status for its NCLB waiver. This designation required that the state submit the final guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation and support systems that met the requirements of ESEA flexibility by May of 2014. The USDOE communicated to Washington officials that the state must mandate ties between teacher evaluation and student assessment performance and specify a minimum threshold for how much this would contribute to teacher evaluations. However, Washington had a state law on the books, passed in 2011, that stated that districts could not use state assessments to evaluate teachers. Washington officials, particularly in the state legislature, preferred for districts to negotiate teacher evaluations at the local level. This created a tension between states' rights to create education laws and the federal desire to tie teacher evaluations to student achievement.

One word makes all the difference

The policy differences between Washington's laws and what the USDOE wanted them to have were actually quite small. One senior official described what the USDOE said to him about what needed to change for Washington to keep the waiver: "And all that is [needed] is a one-word change. It just goes from 'can' to 'must.'" This particular state official was convinced that, if the state legislature changed the policy from stating that "districts CAN use state assessment in teacher evaluation" to stating that "districts MUST use state assessment in teacher evaluations," the USDOE would allow them to waive the NCLB requirements. That level of micromanaging by the USDOE does not sound like flexibility to me.

Rise of the executive branch

This communication between the federal and state government in Washington happened almost exclusively within the executive branches. The NCLB waiver negotiations, along with RT3, typify executive branch expansion in education policy. As Congress refuses to enact comprehensive education policy, the USDOE has pushed an aggressive agenda. Legislative bodies throughout the country, take note: if you don't do your job setting policy, the executive branch may decide to do it instead.  

Blaming Congress

Officials in Washington were less angry with the USDOE than I anticipated. The mood, by and large, was that the USDOE was doing what it could, given that Congress still has not re-authorized NCLB. While state policymakers didn't agree with the decision by the USDOE to pull the NCLB waiver, they constantly returned to the lack of legislative guidance. So, while state policymakers were disappointed in the USDOE's decision to revoke the waiver, they were more upset with Congress for forcing DOE to adjust policy unilaterally.

What were the big takeaways from Washington's NCLB waiver experience?

  1. The USDOE wanted very specific language in teacher evaluation policies.
  2. The executive branch continues to expand its power in educational policy.
  3. Congress is partly to blame for not reauthorizing ESEA.

The USDOE touted the waivers as a way to provide flexibility for states from NCLB. However, Washington's case demonstrates that the USDOE had a very narrow definition of flexibility. As Congress considers how to adjust ESEA in the future, it should check the USDOE's power and provide specifications to balance the relationship among states and the USDOE.

Tomorrow I will shift from what the federal government has done in education policy to what they should be doing by revisiting a classic essay.

--Andrew Saultz

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