On the heels of Nebraska’s application for a waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements, U.S. senators this week took what could be a first real step toward revising the much-maligned federal education act.

When Nebraska submitted its waiver application on March 31 -- a weighty tome numbering more than 1,000 pages -- it became one of the last states to seek a waiver from some of the most onerous requirements of the law, most notably that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math.

Virtually everyone has agreed that’s a laudable but unrealistic goal, given the challenges of English Language Learners, special education students and those living in poverty.

Because Congress couldn't agree on how to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, the U.S. Department of Education created the waiver system in 2011.

Nebraska was one of four states that didn't apply, in part because many of the waiver requirements are just as proscriptive.

For instance, waivers required teacher evaluations to be tied to student achievement and leaned heavily toward states that had adopted the Common Core. Nebraska hasn't favored either.

So what changed the Nebraska Board of Education's mind, just as it looks like Congress might actually do something?

For one thing, up until last week, Congress hadn't shown any movement. 

“This (education law) reauthorization was supposed to take place in 2007,” said board member Molly O’Holleran of North Platte. “We had hoped every year they’d reauthorize, but for some reason there seems to be a lack of bipartisan consensus-building to do this.”

Also, it seemed irresponsible for the state to let the federal government tell Nebraska how it had to use its federal money, she said. 

The No Child Left Behind proficiency targets have been increasing each year, until they were to hit 100 percent, which means more and more schools will fail to meet those targets. 

And when they don't meet them, the law requires a certain amount of federal Title I money -- money given to high-poverty schools -- be used for tutoring or transportation for students who want to change schools. The two state board of education members who voted against the waiver request noted concerns about students losing those tutoring services.  

But another factor, O’Holleran said, is that Nebraska wanted to be "at the table."

In addition to the waiver request, state education officials sent a “position statement” to federal officials laying out what it believes reauthorization should look like and steps Nebraska has taken follow the recommendations in that letter.

For one thing, Nebraska has gotten higher education institutions to sign off on its revised language arts standards as being “college and career ready” as an alternative to the Common Core standards. It plans to do the same with its new math standards.

It also has developed an accountability system that classifies school districts according to student achievement levels and requires state intervention in the lowest-performing schools.

But state officials say they’re doing it the “Nebraska way,” which means they’re looking not just at test scores but at how much schools improve from year to year. And eventually they hope to include other measures beyond test scores.

The state, a big defender of local and state control, has created a model for teacher evaluation that districts can use that doesn’t tie those evaluations to student achievement. That could be a stumbling block to a waiver.

But here’s the interesting thing: The bipartisan plan revealed this week -- called Every Child Achieves -- includes many tenets similar to those favored by Nebraska. 

While it would continue to require students in grades three through eight and at one high school grade level to take tests to measure achievement, the senators' plan would give states much more leeway in developing their own accountability standards.

It would prohibit the federal government from mandating adoption of the Common Core standards, and it would end the mandates on teacher evaluation systems.

“I don’t think we’re at a disadvantage by being so late to apply for a wavier,” O'Holleran said. “Actually, it inspired Nebraska to come up with its own plan about what elementary and secondary education should look like.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.


Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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