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NJ's Request for Waivers Draws Criticism from Advocacy Group

The Obama administration has yet to make an official decision on states' requests for waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act.

But the reviews are in on New Jersey's waiver plan from one advocacy organization, which claims the plan would diminish resources going to needy schools—a charge rejected by the state.

The objections to New Jersey's plan were raised by the Education Law Center, which advocates for equal opportunities for students, particularly disadvantaged ones. The ELC, in a Dec. 22 letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, asks federal officials to defer making a decision on New Jersey's waiver until "several serious concerns are properly addressed by the state."

The ELC, which laid out its objections to New Jersey's acting commissioner of education Christopher Cerf a month earlier, says the state did not give enough time for public comment on the plan before submitting it to federal officials. The organization also says that the state's plan to allocate Title I money to "reward schools" could result in that money flowing to New Jersey schools with "very low proportions of low-income students and English language learners."

The organization also says some of the proposals in New Jersey's waiver application are not authorized under state law, such as proposals to create a new teacher-and-principal evaluation system, and a plan for private school vouchers.

The New Jersey Department of Education responded in a statement by saying the waiver plan will "revolutionize" the state's ability to turn around struggling schools and bring the kind of flexibility on testing that schools have been craving for years.

"Regrettably, ELC continues to focus almost exclusively on spending levels," the department said, "while ignoring—and in this case, seeking to delay—reforms that would materially improve the lives of disadvantaged students."

State officials also acknowledge that some of the policy ideas they included in their waiver plan—such as private-school choice—will require legislative approval.

The ELC said a "full record" of public comments, including its own, on New Jersey's draft plan were not included in the state's submission to federal officials, and that the public wasn't given enough time to review the plan.

State officials counter that they sought input from the public and educators in crafting the waiver proposal, and they included comments in the application. However, some of those comments "were cut off because they exceeded the size allowed through the website."

How much public comment is required in state waiver plans? Section 9401 of the No Child Left Behind Act says that states must provide school districts with notice and a "reasonable opportunity" to comment on a waiver request, and submit those comments to the secretary. (That notice applies to school districts, not the public, federal officials say.) The law also says states must notify the public about the waivers in a manner similar to how they provide other public notices.

Federal officials require that states "meaningfully engage teachers, their representatives, and other diverse stakeholders and communities," during the waiver process, said Elizabeth Utrup, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, in an e-mail.

States' waivers will be judged by teams of peer reviewers selected by the Education Department. We'll have to wait to see what they think of New Jersey's proposal.


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