Waivers: Is The Answer More (But Better) Not Less?

As you might imagine there is a lively set of conversations going on among policy types about the new round of federal policy waiver waivers – and in particular some questions about how people – like me – could say that (a) although a moratorium wasn’t the best course there (b) was some merit in what people like AFT President Randi Weingarten were saying about Common Core implementation and (c) the new waiver waivers were nonetheless not a good policy.  And a lot of people are also wondering if the Department of Education has any strategy here or is just tossing shovels into an already deep hole.

My take is that the policy environment is fluid right now and states are all over the place. Despite the rhetoric about how Race to the Top was just a continuation of No Child Left Behind, they’re actually different policies.  No Child was about prodding laggards and trying to create some sort of floor for underserved kids. Via the waivers it’s awfully hard to argue the Obama Administration has continued that floor. Race to the Top, conversely, was about rewarding leaders and creating incentives for change by focusing on leaders.  And it’s likewise hard to argue that in terms of driving changes in policy the Administration hasn’t been pretty successful with that approach.

So the result of the last decade or so is that states are now all over the place on policy and so some sort of waiver process in federal policy is defensible and necessary (it’s worth remembering that Arne Duncan’s predecessor, Margaret Spellings, faced a similar though smaller-scale situation about how to allow states to use growth models they had developed during the No Child years and decided to use waivers). The problem is that current approaches to waivers don’t lead to a lot of quality. Spellings, for instance, set a high bar initially but states later were able to get weaker plans through. Duncan pledged a high-bar for his No Child waivers but all sorts of things slipped through and the general consensus is that those waivers lessened rather than increased accountability for underserved students.

But is the answer not to have waivers? I don’t think so.  Rather, it’s to acknowledge that there is now so much variance that a more state-by-state policy within the context of some bright lines is probably necessary. But also to acknowledge at the same time that the current way we implement waivers doesn’t fit the bill. It’s routinized, blunt, and leads to confusion more than quality. (And, of course, Congress has some culpability because of its inability to pass reauthorizing legislation for NCLB.)  In other words, if we’re going to have a state-by-state approach and a lot of reliance on waivers then a more robust waiver process with more meaningful peer review is needed. Using an old approach in this new environment, however, is leading to very muddled and ad hoc federal policy and why there is so much concern.

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