Fine Print: NCLB Waiver Application — Draft Outline

John Mooney | November 4, 2011 | Education
A closer look at the Christie administration's waiver for the federal No Child Left Behind Act

What it is: As previously announced, the Christie administration plans to apply for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, joining what will likely be dozens of other states in seeking exemption from some of the federal law’s most draconian requirements. This is the outline released yesterday of that coming application, with some new details on how the administration plans to identify and intervene in flagging schools and how it would reward successful ones, including with money.

Why it matters: The 11-page outline is as much a political document as a policy one, outlining Gov. Chris Christie’s education agenda as he moves into the second half of his term. On the one hand, the application follows much of what the Obama administration proposed in offering the waivers in the first place — including new labels for schools. On the other, it also presses some pet political causes for Christie, including teacher tenure and charter schools and a school voucher bill.

The list: In announcing the state’s hopes for a waiver from NCLB, the administration also released the list of schools that currently don’t meet the law’s definition of “adequate yearly progress.” More than half of the state’s schools now miss the mark, a number that is only going to go up as the required achievement levels continue to rise.

The deadline and public input: The application is due November 14, and the administration is asking for public to comment by next Wednesday on the outline
and the application.

The reaction: It is largely wait and see, as more details emerge in the coming days and weeks. The state’s School Boards Association said it was worried that it would give more power to the state in dictating changes in schools. An urban schools advocate said it looks like the administration is proposing more labeling of so-called failing schools, not less.

The details, and lack thereof: The outline includes many of the details that had been called for in the federal guidelines, including new rules for identifying and intervening in the lowest performing schools. In that, the very bottom 5 percent of schools in terms of student achievement would be called “Priority Schools” and the bottom 10 percent in terms of gaps in achievement for low-income and other special needs students would be called “Focus Schools.” Where the details are vague is what will happen to them. The federal guidelines call for interventions including new leadership and faculty, but the state’s outline says those will be custom-made to each school, leaving broad discretion.

The Reward Schools: As part of the federal rules, New Jersey will also identify highest achieving schools in various categories, including how well their subgroups of students perform. And deviating from the federal guidelines,
the administration is offering to some financial incentives to those Reward Schools, although it didn’t say how much that would be or whom would receive it.

Everyone else: That leaves a fourth category of schools that are neither the high- nor low-fliers, and acting education commissioner Chris Cerf has said that he will revamp the state’s annual School Report Cards to highlight how schools progress and compare against similar communities. The details of that new scoring system tentatively called “School Performance Reports,” which may include letter grades for each school is still to be determined through a working group within the department, the application said.

The politics: The administration has used the outline to promote two of its more controversial proposals: a new school voucher law and another to allow private firms to take over management of failing public schools. The proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, allowing one-for-one tax credits to companies donating to “scholarships” for low-income students to attend private schools, is pending in the legislature and expected to see a vote in the coming months. The proposed Urban Hope Act, sponsored by state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), would allow for charter conversions of the lowest-performing schools at the request of the districts, teachers, or parents.

Teacher evaluation and tenure: The application outlines the administration’s well-known proposal to revamp teacher evaluation and ultimately tie some consequences to those evaluations in terms of teacher tenure protections. The teacher evaluation system — including a reliance on student achievement as being up to half of a teacher’s grade — is now being tested in 11 pilot districts. A bill that would tie those evaluations to whether a teacher receives and keeps tenure is pending in the state Senate, with action also expected in the coming months.