The basics of Indiana’s NCLB waiver: An ongoing debate

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories, find a full index of all the Chalkbeat “basics” stories, go here.)
In 2012, Indiana negotiated a release from some of the sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law, making promises to the U.S. Department of Education in exchange.

Ever since, managing this “waiver” has been, to put it simply, a bit messy.

The back-and-forth over the waiver has included sparring between state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Indiana State Board of Education.

Ritz and her team at the Indiana Department of Education say they immediately faced a series of challenges when they came into office in 2013 that were not their doing — a need to verify the quality of new standards, design new tests to match them and improve the system to monitor low-performing schools —  and have been working to meet federal expectations from the start.

But Ritz’s critics, including current and former state board members, argued she mishandled major parts of the waiver requirements — namely in her plans to turn around failing schools — bringing on scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Education.

The state has taken many steps since 2013 to fall in line with requirements from the federal government to make sure Indiana doesn’t lose its waiver. Losing it could bring serious consequences: limitations on how schools can spend federal aid, and possibly even drastic changes such as firing school principals and other staff at low-scoring schools and requiring the district publicly notify parents that schools are failing.

Indiana submitted a request at the end of June asking to renew its waiver for up to three years. But the state’s A-to-F school grading system has also come into play — any changes to how grades are given in 2015 would need to be approved by the state board, the U.S. Department of Education and possibly even the General Assembly.

Schools struggle to carry out federal law

President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 in hopes of guaranteeing schools were serving students from all backgrounds equally and holding schools to high expectations.

The law required schools to test students in English, math and science. No longer could schools hold back data on groups of students who consistently performed poorly. That was intended to allow parents and others to see if all students were passing tests, or if some groups of kids were falling short in greater numbers.

But schools struggled to meet a requirement in the law that all students be “proficient” on state tests by 2014. Some educators called NCLB an “unfunded mandate” that forced them to implement certain programs and processes, but gave them no extra money or other help to do so.

In 2012, President Barack Obama’s administration began offering waivers from aspects of the law. The waiver said that schools could escape NCLB’s sanctions if they agreed to change state laws to conform with federal expectations for tests, standards, teacher evaluation and oversight of the lowest scoring schools.

In Indiana, education leaders promised to publicly give schools letter grades based on test scores and other factors. The state also said it would adopt Common Core standards that would make sure kids were prepared for college and careers.

But when it abandoned Common Core standards just two years later, federal officials asked for assurance the state was keeping its promises.

Big policy changes throw wrench in waiver renewal plans

Ritz’s upset over then-Superintendent Tony Bennett in the 2012 election coincided with more than two years of sweeping policy changes in Indiana. Some were taking place at the same time the U.S. Department of Education did its yearly review of Indiana’s waiver compliance in 2013.

The largest battle was over Common Core. State leaders that year asked the General Assembly to pause the state’s plan to put the new standards into effect. Conservatives raised concerns over the quality of the standards, which were purported to be more challenging than existing ones, and worried about giving too much control over the state’s education system to the U.S. Department of Education.

In, 2014, the state voided its adoption of Common Core altogether. It happened quickly and followed Gov. Mike Pence’s decision to withdraw Indiana from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers testing consortium, or PARCC.

Indiana then decided to write its own standards and tests for the 2014-15 school year, with both Pence and Ritz supporting that approach.

But the switch brought questions from federal officials.

In May of 2014, the U.S. Department of Education told the state it wanted proof the new standards qualified as “college and career ready” that new state tests would measure those standards and that the state was effectively monitoring schools with consistently low test scores.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Deb Delisle sent Ritz a letter giving her 60 days to draw up a plan explaining how Indiana would address the problem areas.

That worried the state board — the waiver was Ritz’s responsibility, board members said, and they questioned if she was doing enough to make sure Indiana didn’t jeopardize the waiver. Some also were critical of how she and the education department was monitoring low-performing schools.

But Ritz said it was entirely expected that the U.S. Department of Education would have questions after such big changes to Indiana’s standards and tests.

She argued she had also overhauled the state’s school improvement and turnaround office, replacing it with 20 outreach coordinators to serve 300 troubled schools across the state to help assess their needs and shore up their programs. But that work came after the federal waiver review in 2013, she said.

Federal officials sided with Ritz. Indiana got its waiver extended in August of 2014 through June 2015.

A new federal law
In late 2015, the U.S. Congress passed a law replacing No Child Left Behind. It’s called the Every Student Succeeds Act. The biggest difference is that the new law gives states much more flexibility to make decisions about their testing and accountability systems that likely won’t as often require federal sign off.

So what does that mean for the NCLB waivers? Probably they will fade into memory. It’s likely that the U.S. Department of Education will work with states to transfer over control over many of the items that were stipulated in the waiver agreements.

It remains to be seen what Indiana will do with this new authority. Already lawmakers are saying they would like to look at changes to the state’s testing system, perhaps even exploring new state tests.

-Updated December 2015