Commission Urges Duncan to Uphold Core NCLB Elements in Waiver Guidance

July 13, 2009

July 13, 2009

The Honorable Arne Duncan
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, S.W.
Washington, DC 20202

Dear Mr. Secretary:

The Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind appreciates the opportunity to comment on the Department’s draft guidance related to waivers under Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

As you may know, the Commission released a comprehensive blueprint for improving the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Beyond NCLB, in 2007. During our travels around the country and through our extensive research and outreach, the Commission documented a number of major and minor shortcomings in the law, but concluded that the law’s core principles are fundamentally sound. The Commission recommended preserving those core elements but making needed changes to accelerate progress toward achieving the law’s goals, particularly in the areas of teacher and principal effectiveness, robust accountability and data, higher academic standards, stronger high schools, and increased options for students and families.

The Commission is concerned that the broad scope and limited transparency and reporting requirements of the waivers described in the Department’s draft guidance could undermine these principles. The Commission understands the need for flexibility in federal programs, especially as states and districts assess their needs and determine how to maximize use of funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). However, the draft guidance outlines a number of opportunities for waivers—particularly related to Supplemental Educational Services and public school choice but potentially in other areas—without sufficient justification. 

The guidance does not require States and districts that apply for a waiver to meet a critical requirement under section 9401 of ESEA—specifically, that applicants describe how waiving statutory or regulatory requirements will both increase the quality of instruction for students and improve their academic achievement. This justification—backed by data where possible—must be the key criterion in determining whether to approve any waiver request under Title I, Part A. 

We are also concerned that the statewide waivers that the guidance describes could allow waivers of key policy for any district in the state without a specific justification—despite vastly different circumstances which may exist. We urge the Department to bring to bear on waiver requests the same level of transparency as it has on the implementation of ARRA, with all waiver requests and approvals made public in a timely fashion.

The Commission urges you to revise the draft guidance to make clear that the Department will grant waivers only when absolutely necessary to remove an impediment to increasing student achievement. Other types of changes are best saved for careful consideration in the context of ESEA reauthorization.

To that end, the Commission will soon launch a new round of work focused on refining and updating some of our key recommendations, several of which are aligned with reforms in the ARRA. We welcome any suggestions you may have for that process and would be pleased to examine any particular areas of interest you may have as you prepare your own ESEA reauthorization recommendations. We will be certain to share our findings about the implementation of the law and how it should change to quicken the pace and effectiveness of reform.

We look forward to working with you to advance education reform.


Gary Huggins

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