Washington Watch

The Classroom Teacher, winter 2013-14

It wasn’t a surprise in February 2013 when Texas asked the U.S. Department of Education for a general waiver to be free from certain requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. The request for the condition-free waiver was in line with Texas’ refusal to adopt the Common Core Standards or participate in Race to the Top, which also came with strings attached. Texas is one of a few states that have avoided federal reform efforts to maintain, as Gov. Rick Perry wrote, “state sovereignty over matters concerning education.” So it was a surprise when, seven months after Texas’ initial request, the state accepted a conditional waiver that requires changes to its teacher evaluation system that Texas has resisted till now. (See Texas NCLB waiver to tie STAAR scores to teacher evaluations)

Why Texas accepted the waiver

Until Congress passes a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, more recently known as the NCLB, Texas (like most other states) needs exemption from the increasingly hard-to-meet accountability standards of the act.

Established in 2001, NCLB Adequate Yearly Progress standards were set to gradually increase until 2013-14 when 100 percent of each state’s students have to pass the state’s standardized tests in reading and math for the state to meet AYP. (Without the waiver, an estimated 95 percent of Texas school districts would have failed to do so.)

With the waiver, which was granted only for 2013-14 unless Texas fulfills the waiver’s conditions related to teacher evaluation, Texas schools won’t have to meet AYP. Rather, the lowest performing 15 percent of schools will be identified as Priority or Focus Schools and subject to a series of federal interventions.

As granted, the waiver also allows Texas school districts flexibility with how they spend Title I federal funds that they previously had to set aside for private tutoring. In 2013-14, districts may use those funds on academic intervention programs they choose.

Reauthorization bills in play

In July, the U.S. House approved an ESEA reauthorization bill called the Student Success Act. As amended, states and school districts would not be required, but would have the option, to craft teacher evaluation systems based on student outcomes. It must now go to the Senate, which is considering its own ESEA reauthorization bill.

The Senate’s bill requires states receiving Title II funds to implement prescriptive teacher evaluation systems based in significant part on student performance on state tests. However, with Congress’ attention on the federal shutdown and other financial issues this fall, neither bill has seen much movement.

According to TCTA’s Washington, D.C., lobby team, there are indications that Congress could move toward finalizing an ESEA reauthorization bill sooner rather than later, however. “While it is increasingly difficult for this Congress to pass any legislation, Sen. Harkin [chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee] will want to move a bill before he retires in 2014,” says Washington lobbyist Laurie Katz.

“Also, members of Congress are displeased that the USDE is taking matters into its own hands [with NCLB waivers]. There is a push now to pass all 12 agency authorization bills instead of funding FY2014 budgets from a continuing resolution as in years past. If that takes hold, perhaps compromise on an ESEA reauthorization bill will gain some traction.”

The power of the waiver

Until a reauthorization bill passes, the USDE can continue to advance the current administration’s education reform agenda in at least the 42 states that have accepted waivers.

“While everyone in the education community seeks a reauthorization bill, the waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, and the Department can justify their use as necessary given Congress’ inaction,” Katz says. “The Department of Education is in the driver’s seat until a reauthorization passes.”

However, she says other states’ recent push back related to the Common Core Standards adoption timelines could result in delays that may lead to states denouncing other mandated reforms. “Any delay gives Texas more time to play out waiver requirements,” Katz says, “and states have a history of waiting out the federal government for a change in administration.”

She also predicts that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could see his power reduced during the next few years due to decreased funding support for the administration’s legacy programs. “He will need to chart a course that balances both enforcement and encouragement tactics for states to raise standards and continue reforms,” Katz says.

See also TCTA opposes elimination of STAAR-M