In Our View: Seek a waiver from NCLB

States want more flexibility in education,and feds are willing to grant it

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For more than a decade, critics have not-too-inaccurately assailed the title of the No Child Left Behind Act as one of the greatest euphemisms in the history of our federal government. Defenders, though, say the title merely presents a goal and, however unreachable, one worth pursuing.The federal education reform act was scheduled to be reauthorized by Congress in 2007 but, as we all know, Congress has locked itself in a partisan paralysis that prevents any meaningful reform. So states have continued to move haphazardly toward the elusive goal presented by the outdated NCLB.

Recently, 11 states embarked on a new journey allowed by an Obama administration that refuses to wait on Congress. The states were granted waivers that allow them to operate free of many NCLB requirements, under strict conditions. Washington state is correctly trying to join those states, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn is leading the waiver-application process.

Dorn has taken a commendable stance as he seeks a waiver from federal officials. “If they come back and say you didn’t go far enough,” he noted recently, “we’ll say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to do what’s best for Washington students.’” In other words, Washingtonians ultimately will decide what’s best for our own public schools.

The waiver would allow Dorn and administrators statewide to stop obsessing over the unreachable NCLB goal, specifically: Every U.S. student must show grade-level proficiency in math and reading by 2014, and when a student does not, that school will be declared a failure and subject to severe penalties from the feds.

Well, that’s just silly, and the missed opportunity of reauthorization in 2007 continues to haunt school districts across America. Here in Washington state, students’ proficiency has improved dramatically in reading, but not so much in math. Dorn believes a waiver can be granted if our state sets a goal of cutting the achievement gap at every school in half by 2017. According to a blog entry last week by Michele McNeil at edweek.org, the feds want to see improvement districtwide: “Subgroup accountability a big point of contention among states, the feds and civil rights’ groups will be a chief focus of monitoring for the department.”

It’s also encouraging to see the feds recognize that teacher unions must buy into the concept of radical reform. The U.S. Department of Education “wants states to consult with stakeholders, namely teachers’ unions, as they implement their plans,” McNeil wrote. “Collaboration was a make-or-break part of the original (waiver) application process. But how the department will enforce this now that the flexibility is already out of the barn is a whole ’nother matter.”

Requesting a waiver is the right strategy, but if close monitoring is not maintained at the state level, the flexibility granted by the feds will be wasted. With a waiver, the pressure on Dorn and other state officials would still be intense, but they could pursue higher proficiency levels with more autonomy and less meddling from inside the Beltway.