Ding Dong! NCLB Waivers Are Dead

I’ve talked a fair amount over the last couple of years about the “weaponized waivers” employed by the Obama administration under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the previous iteration of which was called No Child Left Behind. The newest iteration of the act, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed back in December of last year. As of yesterday, ESSA officially ushered NCLB waivers down the path of the dinosaurs. That’s great news for those of us who think that the federal government has little business dictating education policy to states.

For readers who have no idea of what I mean by “weaponized waivers,” here’s a short(ish) rundown of the issue from the White House’s official site:

Because Congress would not act to reauthorize ESEA, the Administration moved forward to offer states flexibility within the law – as authorized by provisions in the law itself – to pursue comprehensive plans to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, and improve the quality of teaching. This ESEA flexibility will let states, schools, and teachers develop and implement effective ways to give our children the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future, while maintaining a high bar for the success of all students.

To receive flexibility from NCLB, states must adopt and have a strong plan to implement college- and career-ready standards. States must also create comprehensive systems of teacher and principal development, evaluation and support that include factors beyond test scores, such as principal observation, peer review, student work, or parent and student feedback. States receiving waivers must set new performance targets to improve student achievement and close achievement gaps.

States receiving flexibility also must implement accountability systems that recognize and reward high-performing schools and those that are making significant gains, while targeting rigorous and comprehensive interventions for the lowest-performing schools and schools with the largest achievement gaps. Under the new state-developed accountability systems, all schools will develop and implement plans for improving educational outcomes for underperforming subgroups of students. Unlike the one-size-fits-all interventions imposed by No Child Left Behind, states and districts can design improvement strategies and allocate federal resources in ways that best meet the needs of their schools and students, while maintaining continued transparency on student performance and achievement gaps.

That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Not surprisingly, the reality of the situation was a bit different. In less rosy words, states could be exempted from some of NCLB’s more onerous requirements—and the harsh sanctions attached to those requirements—through a system of waivers. But there were serious strings attached. States had to adopt a number of reforms and/or policies as a condition of receiving a waiver. All of this was done completely outside of the legislative process.

The first 10 NCLB waivers were issued in early 2012. When the Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015, waivers had been approved for 45 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education. Colorado has been one of those waiver states for years. In fact, the state filed its most recent waiver request in November of last year. That request was 283 pages long, which should give you some idea of the complexity involved in these waivers and their requirements.

For obvious reasons, NCLB waivers became mostly irrelevant after ESSA passed. Even so, the waivers were set to remain in force until August 1, 2016, at which point they would become “null and void and have no legal effect.” My calendar tells me it is August 2, 2016. That means that the 283-page document I linked above could now be fairly used to make paper airplanes, spitballs, or paper mache critters.

Don’t use up all 283 pages at once, though. It’s not likely that we’ll be seeing a return to the days of such lengthy requests any time soon. ESSA still allows states to apply to the U.S. Department of Education for waivers, but the Secretary of Education is explicitly barred from prescribing major policy changes in sensitive areas—academic standards, teacher and principal evaluation systems, accountability systems, etc.—as a condition of approving those waivers going forward.

That’s great news because it means that Colorado will once again be free to choose its educational destiny. Or, more accurately, the state will be freer to choose its educational destiny. ESSA is still hundreds of pages long, as are the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed regulations. Those mountains of paperwork aren’t going away any time soon—especially not while our state continues accepting the better part of a billion dollars in federal education money each year.

I should clarify something important before you go: While there was certainly was plenty of bad stuff buried in the NCLB waivers, we shouldn’t confuse the nastiness of the weaponized waiver system in general with an indictment of all the policies it promoted. Not everything the waivers did was bad from a policy perspective. In fact, some of the policies the waivers pushed—strengthened teacher evaluations and accountability systems, for instance—were very important. The problem with NCLB waivers didn’t always stem from their substantive requirements, but from the source of those requirements (the federal government) and the mechanism through which those requirements were foisted on states (weaponized waivers).

All of which brings us back to one of my favorite refrains, which is that states should do the right thing in education policy of their own volition and in the absence of heavy-handed “incentives” or requirements from the federal government. Thankfully, I think Colorado is well situated to do exactly that in the years to come. Our state legislators proved during the 2016 legislative session that the state can stand on its own when it comes to supporting policies related to teacher tenure reform, and I hope they’ll do the same on other important issues.

The end of the NCLB era brings a unique opportunity for Colorado to prove that we can do right by our students without being forced to do so by Washington, D.C. I hope the ESSA Hub Committee, which begins meeting next Monday, will undertake its work with exactly that mindset. As always, Ed will be watching.