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State seeks NCLB waiver

POSTED October 11, 2011 4:36 p.m.

The Kansas State Board of Education Tuesday afternoon voted to apply for a waiver, exempting the state from portions of the controversial 2001 No Child Left Behind law which requires students to meet federally mandated proficiency targets in reading and math.
According to Kathy Toelkes, communications director for the Kansas State Department of Education, among the options offered under a waiver is removing the requirement that 100 percent of students must be “proficient” on state-standardized tests by 2014, a cornerstone of the law. These would be granted in exchange for states adopting alternative education improvement plans.
Making this possible was the action by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who last month unveiled a plan grant waivers. Duncan and the Obama administration acted pit of frustration with lack of congressional action in reauthorizing the act.
“There does seem to be support for the waiver,” Toelkes said. This has come from school administrators and educators across the state.
Unified School District Superintendent Tom Vernon sits in the pro-waiver camp, but with some reservations. “The waivers make a poor law better, but I’d prefer something else.”
There is no way the state board could make a November deadline to apply for the exemption so it is shooting for mid February. Between now and then, members will decide how they want to address the requirements.
Among the possibilities are options based on reducing performance gaps, keeping the targets but extending the deadline to 2019 or the growth model which gives schools credit for showing improvement.
“It’s not that there won’t be accountability,” Toelkes said. A waiver doesn’t excuse the state from providing a quality education, it just makes it easier to do so.
It is not a sure thing. Not every state likely will get a waiver, at least not at first. And states that don’t gain any flexibility still will be bound by all the requirements of the NCLB law.
Toelkes said the state would find out if they received a waiver by the end of the 2011-2012 school year. If approved by the feds, the plan could be implemented by the end of this academic year or by the start of the next.
 “We’ve always felt that the sanctions and accountability were all wrong,” Vernon said. There are three groups of people involved in a child’s education – the child, the parent and the student. But, under NCLB, “schools were the only ones taking the heat.”
It also set unrealistic expectations. There were no exceptions to the 100 percent requirement for race and language barriers or handicaps.
Prompting Duncan’s move to offer the exemptions was the lack of congressional reauthorization of the law, Vernon said. It was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007, but an election and political divisiveness stopped that from happening.
Renewing the law has been difficult for a number of reasons, Vernon said. These include partisan bickering and the complicated nature of NCLB. And, “the law was framed in such a way that it is hard to argue against. Who can argue with ‘leaving no child behind?’”
In addition, “it passed back in 2001 with huge bi-partisan support,” Vernon said. “It’s difficult to get politicians to admit mistakes.”
The problem is that, if there are no changes, every public school in America will be labeled a “failing school,” the superintendent said. “Nobody wants that, but nobody in Congress is willing to give in and change the law.”
Therefore, Vernon said Duncan is looking to issue waivers from certain parts of the law if Congress does not act and act soon. “This, of course, is not sitting well with Congress.
“My biggest concern about all of this – including the original NCLB – is that schools are being labeled based upon a narrow curriculum (reading and math), a single test score on a single day, without taking into account other factors which affect student learning, and expects 100 percent of students to achieve proficiency,” Vernon said.


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