Luna Protests Federal Incursion Over District NCLB Waivers

Sequestration – or rather the government's failure to prevent it – inspired a large chunk of the remarks delivered by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan when he spoke in front of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington D.C.. He called on the people present to raise their voices about the impact the cuts were having on their schools, saying that only pressure on federal officials would force them to work together to restore sequestration cuts — including more than three-quarters of a billion dollars to Title I, a program that helps states fund education for its low-income students.

During the speech, Duncan also brought up the possibility of granting No Child Left Behind waivers not just to the states but individual school districts, or groups of districts like the California Office to Reform Education – which is made up of some of the largest districts in the state – a group seeking its own NCLB waiver. According to the Education Week State EdWatch blog, although Duncan didn't make an outright commitment to considering such waiver requests, he didn't discount the possibility.

California Superintendent Tom Torlakson expressed anxiety about how his department may have to judge CORE districts differently than other California districts if they were granted a waiver. Duncan stressed that he wanted to keep the U.S. Department of Education flexible. While he said he preferred to work with states, he suggested that the possibility for CORE districts to do potentially productive pilots through a waiver, combined with their large combined enrollment of 1 million students, led him to believe that the U.S. department should be open to the possibility.

That became the most contentious part of the talk as Idaho Superintendent Tom Luna chimed in at this point strongly expressing discomfort at the federal government working directly with school districts and bypassing the state government entirely. According to Luna, such incursion by the feds would present a violation of state's rights.

Duncan was quick to reassure Luna and others present that the federal government had no intention "to do an end-run" around the states, but Luna did not appear pacified, repeating several times that overseeing school districts was the job of the states rather than the feds.

Meanwhile, Jason Glass, who is the state's director of education, appeared to hold a more temperate view, saying that as long as the states were not being left out of the discussion, he wouldn't stand against the NCLB waivers for districts.

Like Deborah Delisle, Duncan's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, who raised the idea of "Flexibility 2.0" during March 18 discussions with state chiefs, Duncan raised the possibility of further state flexibility from federal requirements. But the education secretary didn't really elaborate on that theme. Remember, state NCLB waivers expire in 2014. Duncan waxed ecstatic about what states have done with their waivers, saying it would be "spectacular" if eventual Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization built on ideas that states effectively implemented in their waivers.

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