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The Precedent for NCLB District Waivers

State education officials in California have offered a tepid blessing of the No Child Left Behind waiver application that a group of nine districts have submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

In a March 22 letter to federal officials, Tom Torlakson (the state chief) and Michael Kirst (the board president) said the California Board of Education "expressed enthusiasm" for the waiver.

But the two also went on to express reservations about how such a waiver would work, including the role of the state in monitoring these districts, whether other districts will be able to join in, and the process used by federal officials to approve the request.

These nine California districts, calling themselves CORE for California Office to Reform Education, are hoping to secure a first-of-its-kind district waiver now that the state's waiver application has been rejected. The districts are proposing radical ideas, such as that only the test scores from the last grade in any school be used for accountability purposes.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems quite fond of the CORE districts and their proposals, pointing out in a spirited back-and-forth with a group of state chiefs last week that they encompass 1 million students—more than the student population of some entire states.

A Feb. 28 letter from Deborah Delisle, the federal department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, to the state indicated it would send the CORE proposal out for peer review today—signaling how serious the department is about approving this waiver, or making a good show of it. Interestingly, federal officials didn't even bother to peer review the state's application; they just rejected it outright for failing to comply with all of the federal strings.

The ball is now in the federal education department's court. And there are some big questions: Who will peer-review this request? By what standards will they judge this unique request? And will other districts in non-waiver states follow suit (such as in Texas, if that state's do-it-your-own-way waiver request is not approved)?

That said, there is precedent for district-level waivers. Most obvious are the waivers that allowed districts (including Chicago when Duncan was the CEO) to be their own tutoring providers under the NCLB law. But most relevant was a 2011 waiver Duncan approved that allowed a Kansas district to ditch its state's standards and tests for grades 6 and up, and to implement a more rigorous curriculum set to college- and career-ready standards tied to new tests. Another waiver for the 2010-11 school year allowed a dozen districts in Utah to use computer-adaptive tests rather than the state exams for accountability purposes.

Importantly, in most if not all of these cases, the districts had the support of their states. Here, the CORE districts have applied on their own and secured a letter of tepid support from the state. So will this letter that expresses "enthusiasm" be enough?

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