5 Ways the US Department of Education Can Clean Up the NCLB Waiver Mess

In the coming days, Secretary Duncan is expected to release guidelines for states seeking to renew their NCLB waivers. To date, waivers have offered states temporary relief from NCLB, in exchange for enacting certain reforms, but they must be renewed this year unless states want to comply with all of the law’s requirements again. Thus, as I wrote previously, the renewal period marks “the last opportunity for Secretary Duncan to evaluate states’ progress and cajole them to implement key reforms before his administration leaves office.”

In other words, renewal sets the agenda for the twilight years of this administration. Waivers are a massive effort—customized, complicated agreements between over 40 states and the feds on the most significant provisions of NCLB. And managing them will take most of the remaining capacity and energy at the department (which has recently reorganized to handle the demand). Yes, there are also long-awaited regulations on teacher prep programs. But with numerous delays, expectations for ambitious changes there are low. Similarly, the department just asked states to submit long-overdue plans to address teacher equity. Yet the department has few tools in its arsenal to urge states to take these plans seriously, let alone take action. Finally, thanks to the Budget Control Act, education funding will continue to be scarce in the 114th Congress. And even if there were more money to dole out, Republicans would hardly appropriate it to the administration’s priorities.

So for the next two years, waivers are it. The main show. And unfortunately, it’s been a bit of a s**t show. See: releasing (and then revising) guidelines for states needing to extend their waivers before renewal; delaying requirements to use student growth in said evaluations (twice!) after revoking Washington’s waiver for that same reason; asking states to submit extensions in February but doing nothing when requests aren’t received until August; denying Oklahoma’s extension so late that they effectively have no accountability this year; everything about the California district waiver.

Some of this chaos is the natural by-product of an incredibly complicated policy. Because decisions about waivers are often made on a case-by-case basis, the department appears fickle, treating states inconsistently and failing to communicate what the distinctions are between each judgment call. However, some chaos is completely avoidable, because it’s not about the underlying policy—it’s about the process.

To that end, here’s some free advice for the department on how to improve the renewal process. And unlike the larger policy changes suggested by some (including myself), these ideas don’t threaten existing choices states have made, good or bad.

  1. Set an application deadline. Unlike waiver extensions, states need a firm (but reasonable) deadline by which they must submit their renewal requests. This deadline should keep in mind any data the department requires and the fact that some states that received waivers in 2013-14 may not have had any monitoring yet. If the application deadline isn’t met, states should plan to comply with all of NCLB’s requirements for the 2015-16 year (when these states could apply for renewal again). No exceptions.
  2. Set a decision deadline. The department must commit to reviewing all renewal requests and making at least provisional decisions by mid-summer. If a state’s request is denied, restarting NCLB’s accountability system takes time—because the reinstatement of the 20% Title I set-aside for schools in improvement has a huge impact on local budgets. As the case in Oklahoma proves, if decisions come too late, the state loses an entire year of meaningful accountability. Further, districts with low-performing schools need time to plan for their improvement before the school year begins, especially when that includes offering school choice, tutoring programs, or more significant restructuring. It is much easier to plan for the worst (NCLB) over the summer only to find out later that the state’s waiver will continue, than the reverse.
  3. Consider longer renewals. The department has said that some states will be eligible for longer, “deluxe” waiver renewals because they are on-track with the original timeline to develop teacher evaluations. But rather than continue to offer only one- or two-year waivers, the department should consider waivers for longer periods of time, up to four years. On one hand, this clearly helps preserve the Obama administration’s favored policies beyond 2016. But it would also help states since two years from now, a new administration is unlikely to have senior staff in place, let alone a policy framework for waiver overhaul, ready to go in the first hundred days. Taking the pressure off of a new administration to oversee waiver renewal on day one allows their initial energy to be directed instead toward a permanent NCLB reauthorization, and gives them breathing room to make smart policy decisions about future flexibility. It also allows the current administration to best use its dwindling capacity by shifting from the creation of new guidelines each year to continuously monitoring existing ones.
  4. Make all documents public. With most waiver decision-making happening on a case-by-case basis, the only way to understand what states have promised to do—and what concessions the department has made—is for all documentation to be publicly available. The department has done a fair job in maintaining key documents on its ESEA Flexibility page, but more could be done. This includes initial renewal requests, data on low-performing schools or student progress, departmental review documents, letters between state chiefs and federal officials, and final renewal requests with red-lined changes. The department could also significantly improve understanding of waivers by aggregating information into summary documents that detail key provisions, such as the school year in which student growth will be included in each state’s teacher evaluations.
  5. Word-searchable PDFs. Even if the department ignores every suggestion above, at a minimum, any waiver documents should be posted in word-searchable PDFs (i.e. not like this). Posting scanned documents is hardly accessible for reporters, researchers, and advocates, and it cuts against the federal government’s own guidelines for making information accessible to all. This minor change would remove a major inconvenience.

Yes, better data to explore and study complicated waiver policy questions is sorely needed. But these five ideas would at least make the ongoing waiver process work better. With NCLB reauthorization still a long shot (despite a unified Republican Congress), the time for the department to make these changes is now, before the waiver s**t show gets any messier.