The No Child Left Behind waiver for Oklahoma draws both cheers and jeers
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Published: 09-Feb-2012

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi and other state officials applauded an announcement today (Thursday, February 9) from Washington, D.C. that the Sooner State has been granted a waiver from enforcement of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) provisions.

However, a leading conservative education policy analyst based in the nation’s capital said the decision is not a good one for any of the states involved. And the state’s senior U.S. Senator cast a simultaneously critical and sympathetic eye on the announcement. 

In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, Barresi said, “This is a game changer. We now have added urgency to press ahead with implementation of reforms and a chance to help schools in our state improve. Having this flexibility will empower Oklahoma teachers to focus on each individual student and their growth.

“No Child Left Behind was a positive bipartisan reform that brought focus to accountability and rigor, and now it’s time to take the next step. With today’s announcement, no longer will schools in Oklahoma struggle to meet artificial goals. Instead we can focus on effective instruction in the classroom.”

Governor Mary Fallin said, “More flexibility to pursue Oklahoma-based education reforms is a good thing for the state, our teachers and most importantly our students. Acquiring a No Child Left Behind waiver allows our schools to more accurately measure progress in student achievement without a rigid federal formula. The results will be a more dynamic learning environment for our children.
“Moving forward, accountability, transparency and a commitment to improving student achievement remain as important as ever. Oklahoma passed several landmark education reforms last year, and we expect those improvements to our educational system to continue to improve the quality of our schools, raise performance levels among students and ultimately lead to a better educated and more highly skilled workforce.”  
President Barack Obama with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released the list of waiver states this morning in Washington. NCLB, passed in the early years of the second Bush (George W.) administration was a massive reform effort that had bipartisan support. NCLB oversees U.S. government funding of primary and second education, and standardized testing requirements.

Waivers were granted to Oklahoma, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Tennessee. New Mexico, is also seeking a waiver. 

According to Barresi’s office, Secretary Duncan’s grant of the waiver means that flexibility is offered to in exchange for “comprehensive plans to raise standards; to create fair, flexible and focused accountability systems; and to improve systems for teacher and principal evaluation and support.”

Duncan has written, “This flexibility will not give states a pass on accountability. It will demand real reform.”
Barresi said, “Our overall strategy will ensure each student graduating with a diploma from an Oklahoma public school will be ready for college or career without the need for remediation and will be citizen ready, meaning they will know something about our government and the history of our nation.”

Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, backed the Barresi and Fallin applause for the waiver. In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, Steele said, “All Oklahomans want our schools to have the best chance to succeed and this waiver allows for that. With this waiver, the federal government made a choice that’s going to help Oklahoma and not hurt us.

“The waiver shows the importance of the school grading and student reading reforms the governor signed into law last year, as well as Oklahoma’s graduation criteria and school employee effectiveness standards. It’s going to improve the student experience, the teacher experience and the administrator experience all at once. I applaud Superintendent Barresi for her leadership and tenacity in obtaining this critical waiver for Oklahoma schools.”
Lindsey Burke, a Heritage Foundation education policy analyst, disagrees with the positive picture painted by Secretary Duncan, President Obama and Superintendent Barresi.

In a blog post early this afternoon, Burke wrote, “The Administration argues that the NCLB waivers are necessary because Congress has failed to rewrite the flawed law, and states can’t wait any longer for relief from NCLB’s onerous provisions. But the White House’s strings-attached waivers will only grow federal control over education, while weakening the authority of states and local school districts.
“The waivers actually fail to provide genuine relief to states, instead handing control of local school policy over to the Department of Education. The conditions-based waivers circumvent Congress and represent a significant new executive overreach.”

Burke continued, “States do need relief from No Child Left Behind. The 600-plus page law has layered spools of red tape on local school leaders and has failed to prompt improvements in educational outcomes. It has further grown Washington’s involvement in education, continued a maze of federal education programs, and contributed to significant increases in federal education spending.

“But imagine how that burden will grow when states have to begin complying with the new conditions layered on them through this extra-legislative process.

“One of the most concerning conditions attached to the waivers is the requirement for states to adopt common standards and tests or have their state university approve their standards. None of the states have opted for the latter, as the Obama Administration’s many previous carrots and sticks ($4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants and potential Title I dollars) have already pushed them to begin implementing the Common Core National Standards and tests.”

“Having national organizations and the Department of Education dictating standards and tests will effectively centralize control of the content taught in local schools. It’s an unprecedented and dangerous federal overreach.

“Circumventing Congress by granting strings-attached waivers from the White House shows a disregard for the legislative process and a not-so-veiled effort to further grow federal control over education. There are No Child Left Behind alternatives being advanced in Congress like the A-PLUS proposal, which would fundamentally reduce the federal role by allowing states to completely opt out of NCLB—with no strings attached.

“There is agreement on both sides of the aisle that No Child Left Behind is broken. But the Obama Administration should not circumvent Congress to provide conditions-based waivers to states. States might feel some temporary relief from the onerous provisions of NCLB as a result of the waivers, but in exchange, they’ll be shackled with far tighter federal handcuffs that will ultimately surrender more control over education to Washington bureaucrats. States should reject these waivers and resist this latest federal power grab, while demanding genuine relief from Washington.”

Also responding to the waiver announcement was U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, who took a position somewhere between Barresi’s enthusiastic acceptance and Burke’s critical scrutiny. In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, Inhofe said, “The federal government continues to saddle states and local schools with red tape and requirements that it fails to pay for. Students and families are best served when education decisions are left to the local and parental levels.

“While this waiver does return some control to the state level, my concern remains how the individual schools and school districts will be impacted by the federal government’s waiver requirements.  I also remain concerned about unfunded federal mandates coming from the U.S. Department of Education.  In essence, the federal government continues to hold students, parents, teachers, and administrators hostage without providing any real value to our nation’s education system.”

The Tulsa Republican promised, “I will closely monitor this situation to ensure that the federal government does not overstep its bounds.”

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