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A TIME FOR RENEWAL: U.S. Department of Education Announces “Streamlined” Process for Extending ESEA Waivers, Draws Criticism from Civil Rights Organizations

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“I’m sure someone will say that what we did means that we won’t pull a waiver,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “I want to be really clear that the odds are that we will revoke a waiver or two or three, and that could happen as early as this summer ... I just want to be really up front and honest about that.”

On August 29, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released guidance outlining how states could request a two-year renewal to extend their ED-granted waivers from certain requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In a November 14 letter to chief state school officers, however, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah S. Delisle backed away from some of those requirements in favor of a more “streamlined” process that raised concern among civil rights organizations.

In announcing the changes, Delisle said that the new process would accomplish the goals and objectives in the original guidance while “reducing burden and allowing states to move forward with the hard work of implementing college- and career-ready standards, more effective accountability systems for all students, and teacher and principal evaluation and support systems.”

The decision to extend waivers, as well as the decision to relax the requirements to receive a waiver extension, drew strong criticism from Wade Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who called the decision an “unconscionable retreat from a decades-long federal commitment to improving educational opportunities and outcomes.

“By capitulating to the demands of states—many of which have long and lamentable histories of segregation, inequality, fiscal inequity, and persistent failure to educate millions of children—[ED] has confirmed what many in the civil and human rights community feared all along: these ESEA waivers are less about students and more about alleviating adult responsibility to educate them,” said Henderson.

Under the original guidance released in August, a state seeking a waiver extension had to (1) describe how it will continue to meet the original requirements for receiving a waiver; (2) demonstrate that the waiver has been effective in enabling it to carry out the activities for which the waiver was requested; (3) show that the waiver has contributed to improved student achievement; and (4) explain how an extension is in the public’s best interest.

Additionally, in response to concerns raised by the Alliance and civil rights organizations, the original guidance also required states to provide interventions and support for low-achieving students in Title I schools when one or more subgroups miss graduation rate goals or annual targets over a number of years. The degree to which ED will hold states to this policy under the revised guidelines is much less certain.

The original renewal guidance also added requirements to strengthen teaching. Specifically, states had to describe how they would strengthen their use of federal funds for professional development (i.e., Title II, Part A funding) and develop plans for the use of effectiveness data from teacher and principal evaluation systems to ensure that low-income students and students of color are not taught by inexperienced, ineffective, or out-of-field teachers at higher rates than other students.

In the letter, Delisle said that the equitable distribution of effective teachers remains a “very high priority” but will be addressed as part of a “fifty-state strategy,” rather than as part of the ESEA flexibility process.

Instead of the specific requirements outlined in the original guidance, the streamlined process asks states to submit waiver renewal requests based on feedback they will receive from ED on monitoring reports. Under the revised guidance, a state seeking a waiver extension is required to (1) submit a letter to ED requesting an extension and describing how ESEA flexibility has been effective in enabling the state to carry out the activities for which the flexibility was requested and how the flexibility has contributed to improved student achievement; and (2) resolve any state-specific issues and “next steps” identified as a result of ED’s monitoring, as well as other outstanding issues related to ESEA flexibility.

Although some observers have said that the new streamlined process makes it highly unlikely that a state would lose its waiver, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was of a different mind at a November 15 Council of Chief State School Officers’s meeting in Richmond, Virginia.

“I’m sure someone will say that what we did means that we won’t pull a waiver,” Duncan told the attendees, as reported by Education Week’s Politics K–12 blog. “I want to be really clear that the odds are that we will revoke a waiver or two or three, and that could happen as early as this summer … I just want to be really up front and honest about that.”

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