ESEA Flexibility and Waivers

In September of 2011, in the absence of Congressional reauthorization of ESEA, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the administration would allow states to request flexibility in meeting some of the requirements under NCLB. Wisconsin—along with 42 other states, Washington, D.C., a group of California school districts, Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education—applied for a waiver from student proficiency targets, in addition to several other requirements laid out in the legislation.

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Requirements that the Department offered to waive included meeting AYP targets whereby students were expected to reach 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014; mandated interventions for institutions identified for “school improvement,” namely school choice and supplemental education services; and mandatory interventions for districts failing to staff only ‘Highly Qualified Teachers’ in their schools.

In order to receive flexibility through a waiver, states were required to adopt a series of reforms to their academic standards, student assessments, and accountability systems for schools and educators. Specifically, the Department required states to implement:

  1. College- and career-ready standards and assessments that measure student achievement;

  2. A differentiated accountability system that both recognizes high-achieving, high progress schools (reward schools) and supports chronically low-achieving schools (priority and focus schools); and

  3. Teacher and principal evaluation and support systems to improve instruction.

A team of peer reviewers, along with Department staff, studied the proposals, commented on each request, and offered suggestions to states to help them win approval.

Since February 2012, 43 states and Washington, D.C. have been granted waivers, most of which were initially granted only through the end of the 2013-14 school year. States were given the chance to extend their waivers—all but the state of Washington had received a waiver extension as of November 10, 2015. For states that did not apply for or were not granted waivers, the requirements of NCLB have remained in effect.

Over the years, many states have struggled to implement the policies outlined in their waiver agreements with the Department. Similar to the provisions in NCLB from which the waivers offered states relief, reforms initiated under waivers have also been controversial. Some of those new policies have included adoption of the Common Core State Standards and aligned assessments; new annual student achievement targets (which were often different for historically disadvantaged groups of students); state systems for measuring school quality and/or identifying schools for improvement; and state plans for teacher and principal evaluations based in part on student test scores.

Despite these difficulties, waivers continue to serve as de facto federal policy in the vast majority of states until the Every Student Succeeds Act is fully implemented in the 2017-18 school year. The Department has issued guidance for states on the transition from waivers to ESSA, and is continuing to update that guidance as implementation of the new law progresses.