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State education officials moving forward on NCLB waiver application

State education officials moving forward on NCLB waiver application

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Nebraska, one of the few states that has resisted applying for a waiver from the much-maligned federal No Child Left Behind law, now hopes to ready an application by spring.

“We don’t want to wait two more years in the stranglehold of accountability,” Nebraska State Board of Education member Molly O’Holleran said Thursday.

The board discussed a draft statement indicating the board and education department's intent to apply for a federal waiver from the requirements of NCLB, with a tentative timeline that would have the application ready to submit by April.

The possibility of Nebraska jumping into the controversial waiver process isn’t new.

State education officials have been talking with the U.S. Department of Education about it for months, but this is the first time the board has said it definitely wants to move forward with the time-consuming and laborious compilation of a several-hundred-page application.

The policy landscape has changed enough recently that board members appear to agree that Nebraska should join 45 other states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education in applying for a waiver, said Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt. Currently, 43 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have received waivers.

The draft statement and accompanying timeline come just weeks after a report shows that half of Nebraska’s schools failed to meet the 100 percent proficiency targets in reading and math required this year by NCLB.

The federal education law, criticized by nearly all education officials as unrealistic, should have been reauthorized seven years, ago but a gridlocked Congress has been unable to do so.

So the Obama administration created the waiver process in 2011, which allowed states to apply for flexibility from the law’s requirements and sanctions. The sanctions for schools that fail to meet the targets range from having to offer tutoring services and transportation for students who want to attend another school to reorganization of the school.

But for many states, the waiver process has proved nearly as problematic, because it has required them to follow a prescriptive process that has included adopting the voluntary Common Core standards and tying student test scores to teacher evaluations.

But that requirement may be changing.

“The board is encouraged by the increasing willingness of the U.S. Department of Education to consider state plans that are designed by state-level policy makers and local school officials,” the board’s draft statement said.

Blomstedt said some other states, such as Utah and Illinois, have been successful in getting more flexible waiver extensions.

Federal officials have eased their stance on the controversial Common Core standards, which Nebraska has not adopted. They also have been more flexible about the timeline for implementing changes.

Blomstedt said he will attend a national meeting next week where federal education officials are expected to discuss guidelines for the next round of waivers, and he’s hopeful they will be more flexible.

Part of the decision to move forward is timing, Blomstedt said. The Nebraska Department of Education has been focused on complying with a state-mandated accountability system that gauges school performance and intervenes in the lowest-performing schools.

Now, that system is nearing completion and could be used in the waiver process, he said.

Nebraska’s higher education officials also have signed off on the new language arts standards as rigorous enough to prepare students for a college or career, and they will be asked to review the math standards when they are updated.

Board members hope having higher education officials approve the state standards will replace the requirement to adopt the Common Core Standards.

One sticking point could be teacher evaluations. Federal officials have wanted a single statewide evaluation system tied to student test scores. In Nebraska, 17 districts are piloting a teacher evaluation “framework,” which districts can use, but don’t have to. And it doesn’t directly tie student assessments to the evaluation process.

O’Holleran said Thursday that a newly elected Congress could be good news for reauthorization, though it could also be two years before that happens.

But if Nebraska can’t get a waiver that allows it to follow its own vision of education, it won’t accept the waiver, O’Holleran said.

“The waiver has to be better than the sanctions of NCLB,” she said. “If the waiver is a noose around our neck, we’re not doing it.”

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

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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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