In what Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is calling “encouraging news,” President Barack Obama on Monday ordered the U.S. Department of Education to grant No Child Left Behind waivers to states, a huge unilateral step in making the controversial federal law more flexible.
In exchange, states must adopt an unspecified set of education reforms, with details forthcoming in September. From there, states would have a couple months to put together formal applications. Waivers would be granted at some point during the 2011-2012 school year.
“No Child Left Behind has been valuable in raising standards and expectations since it became law, but this is encouraging news,” Haslam spokesman David Smith said in a statement.
In July, Haslam joined other state governors in calling for the Obama administration to waive the law’s requirements, suggesting its stringent standards would lead to perpetual failure. Michigan and Kentucky have also asked for waivers, while Idaho, Montana and South Dakota have said they plan to ignore pieces of the law.
“It’s like telling a lot of us, ‘You need to swim from California to Hawaii tomorrow,’ ” the governor said at the time. “Well, none of us are going to make it. That’s not a good standard. Give us a way that we can show that we’re making real progress.”
With increased proficiency standards, an unprecedented number of schools in Tennessee have failed to meet so-called Adequate Yearly Progress, as defined by the law. Results from tests taken during the 2010-2011 school year came out last week.
Metro Nashville Public Schools has 55 “high-priority” schools under the law. The school district itself is also deemed “high priory” after it fell to the law’s “Restructuring I” classification for failing to meet achievement benchmarks for the fifth year.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan — set to join Haslam and others in Nashville for a roundtable discussion Wednesday at West Middle School — announced that waivers would be granted to states that have adopted their own teacher evaluation, testing and accountability programs, among other steps.
On Monday, Duncan applauded Tennessee for heightening its academic standards, calling the move “courageous" according to media reports. Tennessee appears to be a likely candidate for a waiver.
“Given the stated criteria, we remain hopeful that the Department of Education will look favorably on Tennessee’s application for relief from the inappropriate mandates of No Child Left Behind,” Tennessee’s education commissioner Kevin Huffman said.
Under the current NCLB system, a certain percentage of students in different subgroups — organized by race, English proficiency, and economic status, among other criteria — must hit specified proficiency goals in different academic subjects. Failure to meet goals among any subgroup gives schools and school systems a failing label.
NCLB carries the bold requirement that 100 percent of all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014, which would be thrown out with Duncan’s waivers.
The New York Times has called Duncan’s decision to bypass congressional support for the waivers “the most sweeping use of executive authority to rewrite federal education law since Washington expanded its involvement in education in the 1960s.”