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Alexander: “Mother May I?” Era in K-12 Education Ends Today

With end of waivers on August 1, decisions about education are now in the hands of state and local leaders

WASHINGTON, August 1 — With the expiration today of No Child Left Behind waivers, Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) marked August 1, 2016 as “the end of the ‘Mother May I?’ era in K-12 education.”

“Today, the national school board era has come to an end. Today, the “Mother May I?” conditional waivers era in our nation’s schools has come to an end. And, as of today, the Education Secretary is required by the law to keep his hands off of our nation’s classrooms,” said Senator Alexander. “The new education law fixing No Child Left Behind—which in the Senate earned 85 out of 100 votes—says that the path to high standards, to better teaching, and to real accountability is through classrooms, communities, and states, where decisions are made by people closest to our children and not through a distant department in Washington, D.C.”

In 2011, states began seeking waivers from the U.S. Department of Education from the unworkable provisions in No Child Left Behind, such as the requirement that all students need to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The department required, in effect, the adoption of Common Core State Standards in order to receive waivers—38 states fully adopted Common Core standards. The Department also added other conditions to the waivers, such as how to evaluate teachers using math and reading test scores and other measures.

Those waivers expire on August 1, and under the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Department of Education is prohibited from mandating or coercing the adoption of specific state standards or requiring states or local school districts to implement teacher evaluation systems. The law also strictly limits the Secretary’s waiver authority. It ends the emphasis on standardized tests as the primary measure of school accountability and allows states to develop robust accountability systems with multiple measures of student achievement.

Senator Alexander added: “Imagine a fifth grade math teacher in East Tennessee, 500 miles from Washington, D.C. Before the new law to fix No Child Left Behind, the Department of Education could decide whether that teacher was qualified to teach, whether her academic standards were challenging enough, whether she and her school were succeeding or failing based upon the result of a year-end math test.”

“As a result, her state and district required her to spend more and more time administering countless tests geared toward that end-of-the-year test, less time on teaching, and at the end of the year, if her students didn’t meet a Washington definition of adequate yearly progress, parents would receive a letter saying: ‘Your child goes to a failing school.’”

“The last Secretary granted some waivers from some of those requirements, which made the Secretary more of a national superintendent for 80,000 schools in 42 states because Washington, D.C. then had a new system for deciding whether the fifth grade teacher or her school were succeeding or failing. Standards effectively had to be Common Core, she still had to teach to the test, and the old goals and mandates were replaced by new mandates and new punishments from Washington, D.C.”

“Today, because of the new law, those waivers are gone.”

August 1 is also the deadline for public comment on Education Department’s proposed accountability regulations.

Alexander, noting that the some of the Department’s proposed accountability regulations are contrary to the law Congress wrote and the president signed, said that “the new law includes some guardrails, to make sure states use federal dollars to focus on the lowest performing schools, on low-income and minority students, and students with disabilities.” But, he continued, the law “also has some guardrails on the United States Secretary of Education to make sure he doesn’t start dictating how states, districts, and teachers must run their classrooms.”