Three Additional States Granted NCLB Waivers, Brings Total to 37

Three additional states have been approved for waivers from some of the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced earlier this week. The waiver approvals for Alaska, Hawaii and West Virginia mean that a total of 37 states and the District of Columbia will now be exempt from certain student progress requirements of NCLB as they design their own school improvement plans.

NPR reports that eight additional states are still awaiting decisions on their waiver applications, in addition to the Bureau of Indian Education, which oversees schools on Indian reservations, Puerto Rico and a number of individual school districts in California. If the outstanding applications are approved, it could signal the death knell of the comprehensive education reform law which was one of the centerpieces of President George W. Bush’s legislative agenda.

No Child Left Behind, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, came up for renewal in 2007 and its requirements were not updated. Duncan has pushed lawmakers to revisit the law and make changes to accommodate challenges officials did not anticipate when they first passed the measure on a bipartisan basis in 2001.

The Department of Education under President Barack Obama begun using waivers as an expedient when the odds of reauthorization of NCLB fell due to partisan infighting in Congress. In a statement announcing the approvals, Duncan said that while a comprehensive reauthorization measure would serve students best in the long run, it was unrealistic to expect the states to hold off on their reform plans indefinitely while Congress failed to act.

In exchange for the waivers, states have had to show the Education Department they had their own plans to prepare students and improve teaching. States have sought the additional flexibility to implement their own efforts instead of following the sometimes rigid requirements included in No Child Left Behind.

The waivers also allow states to come up short on requirements that all students perform at grade level in math and reading by 2014.

It’s likely that states that have been approved for waivers already and put into effect their individual reform plans are not eager to see NCLB reauthorized since it would require the adoption of new national guidelines, creating headache for state education authorities.

Among the states still waiting on a waiver approval are Alabama, Illinois, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Texas, and a group of individual districts in California that have sought their own waiver which would cover roughly a third of the state’s 6 million students.

Duncan has said that he does not want his department to get into district-by-district decisions. Such a shift would potentially add a tremendous amount of work for his department and perhaps consume thousands of hours of local districts’ time to assemble the detailed plans to improve schools on their own terms.