Since No Child Left Behind expired in 2007, Congress has shown only fits and starts of reauthorization activity for the most recent incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In response, the Obama administration announced last year that it would exempt states from some of the most punitive provisions of NCLB – including one that requires all students to achieve proficiency on state reading and math exams by 2014 – if states proposed, and the Department approved, their own reform plans. The Department approved 11 states’ waivers in the first round of applications. Another 26 states and the District of Columbia applied for the second-round February deadline, and this week the Department approved eight.
Education stakeholders, though, have expressed concerns as to how strictly the Department will require states to adhere to their applications. Naysayers point to Race to the Top (RttT), another key Obama administration initiative, as evidence that once-rigorous reform efforts have been laxly enforced. The Department has come under fire for states’ slow implementation of the ambitious plans they set forth in their RttT applications – in fact, Department officials even threatened to rescind Hawaii’s RttT funds because the state has delayed its implementation timeline so significantly (the state is still on probation).
Of the eight states that have been granted waivers so far in Round Two, six of them – Delaware, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island – also received Race to the Top grants. (Connecticut and Louisiana also received waivers in round two, but were not granted RttT awards.) That begs the question: Have those states proven themselves to be effective reformers thus far?
Across these six states, the Department has so far approved 38 requests for amendments (some requests included more than one amendment) to the states’ RttT proposals. Although some of those amendments are fairly innocuous, or even represent a positive development (for example, an increase in the funding level for a program included in one of the proposals), others suggest that the states face major hurdles in implementing the reforms outlined in their original applications.
Perhaps most noticeably, each of those six states submitted at least one request to push back their timeline for implementation of teacher and principal evaluation systems. Of the four key components of the Race to the Top applications, teacher and leader effectiveness – including evaluations – was allocated the most points out of the possible 500 in the application scoring. (The three other components were developing high-quality standards and assessments, building and using comprehensive data systems, and turning around states’ lowest-performing schools.)
Stakeholders should be concerned that these six states struggled to comply with the timelines they laid out in their RttT applications. This raises questions about states’ capacities to implement other massive reform efforts – like setting in place the entirely new accountability systems described in their NCLB waiver applications. Implementing these systems, as well as many of the other reforms required in the waivers, will be no easy task because they will require new infrastructure.
Furthermore, states will be on the hook for implementation expenses under the NCLB waivers. With many states facing budget shortfalls, the costs of the waivers could be high; one California estimate found that a waiver would cost the state more than $2 billion to implement. That’s another potential stumbling point for states. States faced challenges in implementing Race to the Top in spite of a large pot of federal dollars available explicitly for that purpose (for the six states discussed here, awards ranged from $75 million for Rhode Island to $700 million for New York). But in the case of NCLB waivers, states aren’t even provided federal dollars for implementation.
The No Child Left Behind waivers release states from the restrictive proficiency targets and other requirements set forth in NCLB, and therefore hold a lot of potential for states to experiment with alternative accountability systems and other reform efforts. But as in Race to the Top, states may struggle to find the capacity – and the cash – to implement major reforms. Whether states will be able to live up to the Department’s, and their own, standards for excellence remains unclear.