New Jersey certainly seems to have a good shot at a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which would free the state from some of the constraints dictated by the controversial law.
When President Obama last week announced details of the new waiver, acting education commissioner Chris Cerf was at the White House. An hour later, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan hosted a press conference by phone, and Cerf was one of just two state commissioners with him on the call.
But for all the invitations and allegiances, now comes the hard part. In order to qualify for a waiver, Cerf's and Gov. Chris Christie's education agenda must be tailored to the evolving -- and detailed -- guidelines coming out of Washington, D.C. The first round of applications is due November 14.
"It's not just the writing of the application," Cerf said yesterday. "It's the policy we'll need in place."
And of course, this comes at the same time Christie is openly flirting with the possibility of seeking the Republican nomination for president, all while taking a few high-profile slaps at Obama along the way. Much of the Republican field so far has been critical of the Obama’s education policies, the waiver being just the latest issue.
"Most of the stuff that the waiver is calling for are things Christie has done and wants to do anyway," said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of politics at Drew University, who closely follows federal education policy.
"But if he runs, there could be a whole different story," he said.
Cerf, a Democrat, said he has received nothing but approval from the governor and his staff to pursue the waiver. "I know we are in a dynamic political environment, but we are moving forward," he said yesterday.
Still, for all the newly fueled speculation of Christie vs. Obama in 2012, education is one thing where the two largely agree. Christie has said as much in pitching his education agenda, often citing the president's support of the same platform of higher standards, greater teacher accountability, and expanded school choice.
It was much of the same agenda pressed in the federal Race to the Top competition, which New Jersey narrowly lost last year on a technicality. Christie has nonetheless pressed ahead. (And his administration has said it will go for that grant again as well, albeit for a much smaller amount.)
The waiver will require states adopt uniform standards under the Common Core State Standards project, to have a teacher evaluation system in place that includes student achievement measures, and to have programs ready to help its very lowest-performing schools.
Where the waiver differs distinctly from the current rules of NCLB is that while testing will still be required, it will not hold every school to specific targets for every one of its subgroups of students, including those with disadvantages and special needs. Under NCLB, any school that falls short in any category is labeled “in need of improvement.”
Under the waiver rules, only some schools will be targeted, and under new categories:
"That's the most significant change, where they are putting the focus on the bottom and giving some slack to the rest," said McGuinn. "That's a big shift in policy."
That comes with its perils, he said, as some worry that achievement gaps in mediocre schools or even high-performing ones get overlooked. They may not be the worst in the state but could still be problematic.
"There will still be a lot of poor and minority students [in these schools] still being poorly served, and that's where the accountability is being peeled away," McGuinn said.
"Are they being let off the hook?” he said. “Or do the states pick up the ball and keep the pressure on all schools? Everything we know from history is some will and some won't."
Cerf said yesterday that New Jersey will not back off from holding all schools accountable for student results, including those that may be considered higher-performing. His staff has only begun to start devising the accountability system they plan to propose to the federal government, he said, but it will include open and accessible data on all schools and how they compare. He did not rule out a grading system similar to the one he helped oversee as a deputy chancellor in New York City schools.
"There will be an incredibly robust metric in place to show how every school is doing against others and their peers," he said. "There will be a lot of information."
He said it will be a matter of how much a state intervenes in those cases, versus in those schools that are the state’s very lowest performers.
"We definitely want to call out schools," Cerf said, "but it's a question whether we do so with the heavy hand of the state also attached."
Still, he said, these are all discussions that are underway. Much of it was outlined in a recent task force report presented to Christie that discussed the bureaucratic burdens that currently exist under both the state and the federal rules.
"This waiver does present an opportunity for a dramatic change from that," he said. "There is a great amount of latitude left to the states."