Las Vegas Sun

October 13, 2015

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Waivers on No Child Left Behind announced; Nevada to apply

One of the biggest complaints Nevada educators have about the federal initiative to improve classroom education, No Child Left Behind, is that its higher and higher standards have left more and more schools falling behind, panting to catch up.

On Monday, Nevada schools learned they just might be able to catch their breath.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the government would allow states to bypass the law if they submit even better plans to improve school performance.

The waiver is good for as long as Congress remains gridlocked over how best to reauthorize the government’s operational law governing elementary and secondary education, he said.

Since it was passed in 2001, No Child Left Behind has been a source of growing frustration.

It requires public school systems to post annual improvements in 45 education and school quality categories, and sets a nationwide goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by the 2013-14 academic year. Schools that fall short of any attainment goal are subject to consequences that range from transferring students to total restructuring of the underperforming schools.

But subpar performance is not just an incidental, school-to-school problem.

Many states, Nevada included, have seen entire school districts losing ground as they struggle to meet annual achievement thresholds. Some are posting worsening statistics instead of inching up toward the goals.

In Clark County, which the Education Department put on a watch list last week, 61 percent of schools failed to make “adequate yearly progress” — an uptick from last year.

State education officials say those toughening standards are largely to blame.

“The 2014 goal isn’t realistic,” said Keith Rheault, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction. “There are better ways to measure school achievement.”

Nevada has homed in on one alternate strategy: a “growth model” under which officials will measure progress by comparing students’ personal achievements over time — improvement, student-to-student, will be the sign of success instead of an outside standard, set by tests.

Nevada is one of 18 states leaning toward adopting this model in the coming year — and to this point, it was an undertaking the state was going to have to pursue alongside continual efforts to meet No Child Left Behind obligations.

But the waiver offer is enticing.

“Every single government I’ve spoken to is very, very interested in this,” Duncan told reporters Monday. “The best ideas ... are going to come at the local level.”

Nevada will put together an application for a waiver, Rheault said.

He’s feeling fairly confident about the state’s chances.

“I think we’re in a good shape to apply for it,” Rheault said. “We need this relief.”

But concerns remain.

Nevada has received partial waivers to requirements in the past two years, but the standard for the total waiver — despite the fact that the door has been flung open far and wide — is higher.

“Every single state can receive this flexibility, but ... those states that aren’t able to comply will have to continue to operate under No Child Left Behind,” said Melody Barnes, President Barack Obama’s domestic policy adviser.

But the White House hasn’t been specific about what it’s looking for, and Nevada hasn’t had the best record when it comes to petitioning the federal government that the state can chart a better course to success.

Nevada failed colossally to secure a federal nod in last year’s Race to the Top funding, when the federal government offered competitive funding to public school systems engaged in innovative approaches to education.

And then there’s that last-among-states ranking.

Nevada has been trying to take steps to correct and reverse its public schools’ abysmal performance course of late, but the changes adopted in the last Legislature are only beginning to come into their full formation, and Nevada wants this waiver now.

For instance, the Legislature adopted a statewide teacher evaluation system, to be tied to student achievement, but it will take about two years for it to be implemented.

Duncan told the Sun on Monday that in cases like Nevada’s, the Education Department would do everything possible to bolster the state’s efforts — with the potential for calling in their marker, though, if it didn’t work.

“I’m really interested in those states that are trying to get better,” he said, suggesting his office would be inclined to grant a conditional waiver over no waiver at all. “We’d be open to states like that, that may not be as far along as others ... although if at some point they backed off the reforms, we’d probably back off the waiver.”

Although a waiver would provide Nevada temporary relief, it’s not a complete plan for improvement — not even if every project Nevada has implemented at the state level goes swimmingly.

With debts, deficits and downgrades demanding attention, no one in Washington is anticipating that Congress will turn to a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind by the deadline the White House set — the start of school. (It would be impossible, in fact, given that Congress is on vacation until after Labor Day.)

That’s a significant shortcoming for Congress, because education policy was one of the areas in which Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, the chief Republican in town, were thought to share common outlooks and goals. Boehner was one of the original drafters of the No Child Left Behind law; Obama had wanted to work within its parameters toward a reauthorization.

With no money on the table — underfunding was one of states’ chief complaints with the law’s mandates — and little extra energy to tackle yet another major statutory overhaul in the next few months, it’s not likely that lawmakers will take education policy up in the short term.

At some point though, they will — and then, the terms of compliance may change entirely.

But Duncan says that with more than 80 percent of schools on course to be pegged “failures” this year, the administration couldn’t wait.

“Congress didn’t act. It should have acted; we can’t afford to sit here and not help the states,” he said, pointing out that it didn’t cost the federal government anything to waive the requirements. “Our move can be a bridge or a transition ... people are begging, they’re imploring us to do that right thing.”

Demirjian reported from Washington, Takahashi from Las Vegas.

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