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Waiver Watch: Forecasting Obama's Second Term

Published:  January 22, 2013
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Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert

Much like the rest of President Obama’s signature education programs from the first term, the policy around ESEA flexibility seems to be shifting. The focus is no longer on how to win a waiver, but rather, on how to implement and monitor the commitments states made. Most states have secured their waiver, with only a handful waiting for approval from the Department of Education. While I’d encourage states to continue to refine their waivers based on lessons learned during implementation, no one has forced states (besides Virginia) to change their plans mid-course. Further, the Department has already shifted their attention to initiatives in early education and higher education.

So where does that leave the NCLB waivers in the second term? As I’ve written before, the waivers are insanely complicated, making it difficult for the public and even policymakers to parse out what states should be doing. That’s why it’s notable that the Senate HELP Committee wants to hold hearings on the waivers as soon as February, with testimony from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and state chiefs overseeing the waivers in their states. The House Education and Workforce committee is also mulling their role in providing oversight.  These hearings would likely involve some of the most controversial issues around graduation rate accountability, super subgroups, and different goals for minority and disadvantaged students.

While the hearings will likely shed light on the best – and worst – attributes of ESEA flexibility, the real question is whether they will lead to any meaningful action. The 112th Congress was the least productive and most polarized in history, and the 113th is not off to an auspicious start, with a so-called triple cliff to resolve before April: sequester, debt ceiling, and the expiration of the last budget continuing resolution. Add to that an unprecedented ‘to-do’ list for education – ESEA, IDEA, HEA, Perkins, WIA, CCDBG, Head Start, and the Education Services Reform Act are all pending renewal – and you have an environment where Congress will likely gripe about the waivers, but fail to reach a consensus on what to do about them.

The Obama administration seems to be betting on it. Over the next three years, states will implement their waivers and work through the kinks. By the time Congress gets its act together, states will have gone so far down the road with their new accountability and teacher evaluation systems that legislators will be hemmed in to passing a reauthorization that mirrors the flexibility policy. Secretary Duncan relayed this game plan in a speech to state chiefs: implementing the waivers “will have a big impact on shaping any reauthorization bill that might emerge.”

Given this context, here is what I’ll be watching in the second term:

District Waivers

For months, there have been rumblings of the Department offering district-level waivers for school systems in states that did not apply or were not approved for the larger flexibility plan – namely, California and Texas. Unsurprisingly, governors and state chiefs are not fans of the idea, and it is unclear what relief exactly the Department could give to districts without undermining the authority and autonomy of state education agencies. That said, eight districts in the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, signaled their intent to apply for a waiver last week, before the Department even formally offered flexibility to them. How will Secretary Duncan respond to this request? Will the California Governor Jerry Brown or the State Board support their efforts? The CORE districts are some of the largest in California and have adopted reforms – like teacher evaluations – that doomed the state waiver request. Will other districts follow their lead?

Waiver Amendments

The waivers require states to overhaul accountability systems, implement college- and career-ready standards and assessments, and craft teacher evaluation systems based in part on student achievement. While many of these reforms could improve the state of education in the long term, the benefits are contingent on effective implementation.

Monitoring states’ waiver plans presents a significant challenge moving forward. In some states, new school grades and teacher evaluations appear arbitrary or inconsistent with past guidelines. Will states be receptive and responsive to feedback from educators, legislators, and the public? Just as states negotiated with the Department to draft their initial proposals, they have the opportunity to amend their plans at any time – Florida, Oklahoma, and South Carolina have done so already. Further, the Department should not rely on states alone to self-monitor their progress. With more states operating under a waiver than the original NCLB law, does the Department have the capacity to successfully monitor states’ activities? And if states do not follow through with their promises, will they intervene?

Stay tuned to the Waiver Watch for continuing coverage of these issues, and more, as states implement their flexibility plans.

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