In Our View: State Receives No Child Left Behind Waiver

Federal education law is outdated, and states need more autonomy

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Four months ago, a Columbian editorial yearned for the day when public-school educators in Washington state "could pursue higher proficiency levels with more autonomy and less meddling from inside the Beltway" of Washington, D.C.

Total autonomy, of course, will be impossible as long as there is a United States Department of Education with an annual budget of about $71 billion in 2011, according to www.budget.gov. But giving Washingtonians more power in running our schools is essential, and one good step in that direction is to remove from our state the yoke of the outdated and ineffective federal "No Child Left Behind" law. Much of that burden was removed Friday when the Obama administration granted waivers to Washington and Wisconsin from many NCLB requirements.

Friday's announcement brought to 26 the number of states no longer bound to all NCLB mandates. This was the right thing for Washington state, which did not deserve to be continually victimized by an intransigent Congress that refuses to agree on education reform. And it was the right thing for the Department of Education, which understandably drew several commitments from the state before granting the waiver.

Among those commitments, Washington must continue to show improvements in how students are prepared and evaluated. Specifically, the state has agreed to embrace new national education standards, strengthen systems of evaluating teachers and principals, and expand the vision of student proficiency beyond reading and math.

Public-school students across America cannot wait for Congress to come to its senses. Education reform could've been accelerated in 2007 when NCLB was up for reauthorization by Congress. But failure to act led to several negative consequences. NCLB critics continued to complain that the bill indirectly coaxes school districts to encourage teachers to "teach to the test," and in pursuit of that strategy, many school districts have narrowed their curricula.

How did these misguided consequences unfold? Because NCLB -- described in an Associated Press story as the "signature accomplishment" of President George W. Bush -- adheres strictly to an impossible requirement for all states. By 2014, the requirement is for all students to achieve proficient math and reading scores. Of course, that is impossible, and many states responded by seeking waivers to NCLB requirements.

It would be wrong to assume the state-federal partnership in education is going away or even withering. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement released Friday: "A strong, bipartisan reauthorization of (NCLB) remains the best path forward in education reform … ." But states like Washington need the ability to move forward on their own.

Other commitments made by our state to earn the NCLB waiver include the agreement to cut in half by 2018 any achievement gaps between various ethnic and economic groups. There's a new rule for the state's Title I schools (high-poverty public schools that get extra money from the feds). The state now must identify "priority" schools (the 5 percent lowest-achieving of Title I schools); "focus" schools (the 10 percent lowest-achieving); and "reward" schools (those making the most progress).

The waivers for the states are properly temporary. When (if) Congress gets its act together on education reform, the waivers will not be needed.