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PRO: Federal education law waivers prevent sanctions

By KBell
Feb. 19, 2012 at 10:04 p.m.
Updated Feb. 18, 2012 at 8:19 p.m.


INTRODUCTION

Under the "No Child Left Behind" law, Texas has until 2014 to make sure every student in the state is proficient in math and reading.

That is, unless Texas joins 39 other states in seeking a waiver from the federal government.

President Barack Obama announced in August the Department of Education would seek a plan to allow states flexibility on the strict standards of No Child, which the nation is falling increasingly behind on meeting.

The executive move came after Congress failed to reach an agreement in 2007 on overhauling the No Child law enacted in George W. Bush's administration.

"The unfortunate thing is, we're now four years overdue, almost five years overdue, and so we're butting up against 2014, when nobody thought that would ever happen," said Sandy Kress, an Austin attorney who was senior adviser to Bush on No Child issues.

So far, 11 states have received the waiver, which frees them from the 100 percent proficiency standard. But the waiver also holds them to new accountability measures - ones that fall in line with Obama's education agenda.

Should Texas, which under No child Left Behind has about 26 percent failing schools, join ranks and avoid possible federal sanctions that come with not meeting standards?

Or should it seek a waiver, which would come with more federal strings attached?

While the name itself invokes a noble challenge, the "No Child Left Behind" law has set forth what now seems unattainable goals for America's schools.

The law requires each school in the U.S. to meet so-called Adequate Yearly Progress - or standards that become more loftier by the year - until 100 percent of students are deemed proficient in math and reading.

AYP takes into account standardized test scores, participation on tests, attendance and high school completion rates.

The 100 percent deadline has been set for 2014, but schools are steadily falling behind each year's increasingly difficult benchmark.

In 2011, almost half of all U.S. schools failed to meet the progress standards.

"The issue is really one of not wanting all your schools to be identified with this tag of not making AYP, and having so many schools on the list that you can't respond to their needs - whether it's the state or the district - in any kind of rational way," said Sandy Kress, an Austin attorney who was senior adviser to George W. Bush on No Child issues.

Texas, compared with other states, has a lower amount of schools not passing No Child standards. But in 2011, the number of failing schools jumped to 26 percent, from 5 percent the two previous years, according to the Center on Education Policy.

Schools that receive federal funds and repeatedly fail to meet AYP could be subject to improvement requirements. The government can require districts to transport students to a higher performing school or even charge states or private companies with taking over schools.

The Victoria school district missed AYP in 2008, 2009 and 2010 because of low graduation rates. VISD also missed AYP in 2011 because of low math and reading scores. The district has not been subject to sanctions, however, because it has shown improvement in problem areas, said Diane Boyett, district communications director.

"It just sort of gets tougher and tougher if you stay on that list," Kress said.

A waiver would provide relief from some consequences under No Child and allow schools greater authority to determine themselves how to best improve. But the state must wager if gaining certain flexibilities is worth compromising other controls.

Most states, it seems, are going for the relief.

"They're trying to harmonize their own accountability systems with the federal requirements so that they're in greater sync. The states are trying to get some flexibility so that the accountability ... is closer to what they want to do," Kress said. "And that would be an argument for Texas to seek a waiver."

The official deadline for waiver proposals is Tuesday, but the U.S. Department of Education will work with states on accepting proposals after the deadline, said Jo Ann Webb, a spokeswoman with the department.

Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott is still considering the waiver.

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