Blame game ensues as feds deny Iowa waiver from No Child Left Behind

The U.S. Department of Education recently denied Iowa's request for a waiver from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, which went into effect in 2002. Late last week, Governor Terry Branstad and members of his administration traded accusations with Iowa Senate Education Committee Chair Herman Quirmbach over the eternal political questions "What's to be done?" and "Who's to blame?"

Background: the Branstad administration released an education reform blueprint in October 2011, and the governor made adopting that plan one of his top priorities for the 2012 legislative session. The Iowa House and Senate passed a scaled-back education reform bill shortly before adjourning for the year in May. In his signing letter, Branstad called the final version of Senate File 2284 a "first step toward improving the quality of education in Iowa."

According to Mike Wiser's report for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the U.S. Department of Education has granted waivers to 19 of the 37 states that have requested flexibility regarding some No Child Left Behind requirements. The Iowa Department of Education submitted its waiver request in February. Click that link to download the full request and supporting documents. Videos with further detail on Iowa's proposal are here.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle explained the decision to reject Iowa's request in this letter (pdf). I enclose the full text. Delisle repeatedly refers to the "ESEA" because No Child Left Behind is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

Dear Director Glass:

Thank you for your letter of May 30, 2012 to Michael Yudin regarding Iowa's ESEA flexibility request. We appreciate the information you provided regarding the challenge the Iowa Department of Education faces in developing and implementing teacher and leader evaluation and support systems that:

    *Will be used for continual improvement of instruction;

    *Meaningfully differentiate performance using at least three performance levels;

    *Use multiple valid measures in determining performance levels, including as a significant factor data on student growth for all students (including English Learners and students with disabilities), and other measures of professional practice (which may be gathered through multiple formats and sources, such as observations based on rigorous teacher performance standards, teacher portfolios, and student and parent surveys);

    *Evaluate teachers and principals on a regular basis;

    *Provide clear, timely, and useful feedback, including feedback that identifies needs and guides professional development; and

    *Will be used to inform personnel decisions.

In its request for ESEA flexibility, an SEA [state education agency] must provide the guidelines it has developed and adopted, or a plan to develop and adopt those guidelines, and ensure that each local educational agency (LEA) in the State develops and implements teacher and principal evaluation and support systems consistent with the SEA's guidelines. This includes ensuring that LEA evaluation and support systems take into account data on student growth in a significant way to determine teacher and principal performance levels.

According to the information in your request, the Iowa Department of Education does not currently have authority to ensure implementation of teacher and principal evaluation and support systems consistent with this principle of ESEA flexibility. Because of these constraints, the Department is not able to approve Iowa's request for flexibility at this time.

Please be assured that we would like to continue working with Iowa in support of your efforts to increase the quality of instruction and improve student academic achievement. Further, I'd like to commend you and your team on the work that has been done to develop high-quality plans to transition to college- and career-ready standards and aligned assessments, as well as to develop a differentiated recognition, accountability and support system that holds strong promise to improve student achievement.

As Iowa continues to move forward with important educational reforms, we stand ready to be a partner and to provide support. Best wishes in your continued quest to ensure that all students achieve at high levels.

Sincerely,

Deborah S. Delisle

The governor's office responded publicly on June 21:

Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds today released the following statements upon learning Iowa was denied a No Child Left Behind waiver. Read the official letter from the United States Department of Education here.

Gov. Branstad:

"Responsibility for the denial of this request lies squarely at the feet of the Iowa Legislature, which did too little to improve our schools despite repeated warnings. The education reform plan Lt. Governor Reynolds and I proposed would have ensured a waiver from the onerous federal No Child Left Behind law. Lawmakers, instead, chose to delay updating the educator evaluation system by requiring a task force study the issue and make recommendations for consideration by the 2013 Legislature. The U.S. Department of Education, however, left the door open to approving Iowa's request for flexibility if lawmakers come back to the table and pass meaningful reform that gives the Iowa Department of Education the authority it needs to update evaluations now.

"Iowa has slipped to the middle of the pack in education in part because we did not adopt the same rigorous policies as other states receiving the waiver. This reflects poorly on Iowa, and our students deserve better."

Lt. Gov. Reynolds:

"The governor and I have traveled all 99 counties, and dozens of those visits centered on school transformation. Iowans understand that our children and grandchildren must be prepared with a globally competition education. Governor Branstad and I presented an education blueprint that would have done just that, while also passing the waiver test.

"Our door remains open, and if state lawmakers want to come together to give the Iowa Department of Education the authority it needs to move ahead with updating educator evaluation now - with a focus on continual improvement and accountability - we are ready.  We cannot allow our children to be stuck in 20th century schools when it is critical that we do more to assure they are prepared for the 21st century."

State Department of Education Director Glass also put the blame on state legislators:

"This was a missed opportunity for Iowa's schools to find relief from a law that holds them to unrealistic measures and then blames them for failure. We made it clear to the Legislature in committee meetings and in writing that the Iowa Department of Education needed statutory authority to move forward on implementing a waiver-compliant evaluation system. The Legislature did not follow through."

Alyson Klein reported for the Education Week blog,

In turning down the bid, the Education Department decided that Iowa's state education agency did not have the authority to enforce the requirement that teachers and principals be evaluated in part on student outcomes. In fact, state lawmakers passed a measure stating that any changes to the state's teacher evaluation system must get legislative approval, which added an extra stumbling block, Glass said in an interview.

"That created an unworkable situation," Glass said. "We've been negotiating with the U.S. Department of Education to try to find a way through this. It's just not possible. We are very disappointed that our state is [still] under the onerous shame and blame policies of NCLB for another year."

And he said state lawmakers were warned "numerous times" that their legislation could jeopardize the state's waiver bid. Still, he pointed out that the department's letter left the door open. "The letter very carefully does not say 'denied'" he noted. "It says 'cannot be approved at this time.'" That means there is hope that if the legislature acts, Iowa could still get its waiver down the road, Glass added.

Democratic State Senator Herman Quirmbach shepherded the education reform bill through the Iowa Senate Education Committee and was a key negotiator on the final compromise over Senate File 2284. In a statement released by the Iowa Senate on June 22, he denied that lawmakers had significantly altered the governor's proposal and asserted that Glass hadn't been an effective advocate.

Senator Herman Quirmbach (D-Ames), chair of the Iowa Senate Education Committee, today issued the following statement on the latest developments regarding Iowa's application for a waiver of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"I am disappointed in Governor Branstad's superficial response to the latest round of feedback from the U.S. Department of Education.  Had the governor taken more time to read the bipartisan legislation that he himself signed, he would have realized that we gave him exactly what the feds asked for in a form nearly identical to the governor's original request.

"In a recent letter to Iowa Education Director Jason Glass, the US DoE stated that it wanted Iowa to provide new guidelines "or a plan to develop and adopt those guidelines" for a statewide system for evaluating teachers and administrators.  The final version of Senate File 2284, which received unanimous bipartisan support from all ten Republican and Democratic legislators on the conference committee, provided just such a plan.

              "The governor's press release criticizes SF 2284 for creating a task force of education professionals to develop a draft of these guidelines.  That, however, is exactly what the governor's original bill requested on page 8 of Senate Study Bill 3009.  Branstad set a deadline for the task force to report by October 15.  SF 2284 sets the same deadline for the same task force.

              "The DoE letter lists six specific points it desires for the evaluation system.  All six are either already established in SF 2284 (e.g., annual evaluations) or are included in the bill's charge to the task force (e.g., using measures of student growth and differentiating at least three performance levels).  Again the language in the final bill directing the task force is virtually identical to what the governor's original bill draft tells his task force to do.

              "The one thing that the governor requested but that SF 2284 did not do was to give Education Director Glass the unilateral power to adopt the educator evaluation system without legislative approval.  Both houses of the Legislature and both parties agreed that that was too much power to vest in an unelected bureaucrat.

              "Instead of engaging in election-year finger pointing that misrepresents the truth, Governor Branstad should do two things.  First, he would better serve the interests of Iowa's students by buckling down and getting to work with the task force that he requested and that the legislature gave him, so that they can meet the October 15 deadline that he and we set.  If they meet that deadline, then we in the Senate look forward to reviewing their recommendations and formulating appropriate legislation to be ready for early consideration in next January's legislative session.

              "Second, Branstad and Education Director Glass need to do a much better job at communicating to the US DoE that we have accomplished exactly what the feds have requested for the NCLB waiver.  So far, they have fumbled the ball."

For reference, the legislation in question can easily be found online:

The governor's original bill, SSB 3009, is at

http://coolice.legis.state.ia....

The final bill, SF 2284, is at

http://coolice.legis.state.ia....

The governor's "Statewide Educator Evaluation System Task Force" is on page 8 of SSB 3009.

The Legislature's identically titled task force is on page 5 of SF 2284.

On the use of student achievement data for teacher evaluations, see Section 10, p.5, lines 19-33 of SSB 3009 and the virtually identical Section 9, paragraph 5, pp.5-6 of SF 2284.

On the requirement to rank educators' performance levels, both bills propose a four-tiered evaluation system, using the exact same sentence on page 8 of SSB 3009 (lines 18-20) and on page 6 (paragraph number 6) of SF 2284.

The U.S. Department of Education letter is at

https://governor.iowa.gov/wp-c...

Members of both parties engage in "election-year finger-pointing" every campaign season, so nothing new here. Quirmbach is correct that the language on the "statewide educator evaluation task force" in the governor's proposed bill strongly resembles language in the final version of Senate File 2284. I am not convinced that the U.S. Department of Education would have granted Iowa's waiver if Glass had more persuasively shown that our state had a "plan to develop and adopt those guidelines." The U.S. Department of Education doesn't want to see any old plan for teacher evaluations. As Delisle's letter indicates, federal officials demand a plan that gives the state Department of Education "authority to ensure implementation of teacher and principal evaluation and support systems."

I find Branstad's position ironic in one sense. The new teacher and administrator evaluation standards will affect hundreds of Iowa school districts. The governor wants legislators to grant a state department the authority to implement a task force's recommendations without approval by the people's elected representatives. Once upon a time, Iowa Republicans would have frowned on giving that kind of power to a state education bureaucrat. Add this episode to the list of reasons that the Iowa GOP is no longer the party of local control.

Senator Tom Harkin commented last week that Congress needs to adopt a new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, "so all states can receive the relief they need from the current requirements of No Child Left Behind." He called for legislation similar to a bipartisan bill the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee supported in the fall of 2011. I can't imagine that this Congress could agree on significant education reform before the 2012 general election.

Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: The Quad-City Times editorial board commented today,

Iowa's failure to get students out from under these useless tests falls squarely on elected leaders. Gov. Terry Branstad on Thursday blamed the Legislature, one suitable target.

Lawmakers of both parties failed to pass his comprehensive education reform plan before surrendering with tepid measures that didn't meet the minimum federal requirements.

But Branstad can't hide from accountability. He opted for his comprehensive Blueprint for Education but failed to muscle it through the Legislature.

By ineffectively managing his reform through the Legislature, Branstad and his education chief, Jason Glass, left Iowa school kids anchored to the failing No Child measures for at least another year.

Branstad showed muscle on other issues, notably on May 11 when he issued an executive order overturning a legislative ban on using lead shot to hunt mourning doves.

That's right. He used executive power to appease a handful of hunters. But for Iowa school kids, the governor was less forceful and effective.

LATE UPDATE: The Iowa Department of Education "is asking the federal government for a one-year freeze on the "No Child Left Behind" standards while the state works toward a permanent waiver."

Senator Chuck Grassley is on the case:

For Immediate Release

Friday, June 29, 2012

Grassley says the denial of Iowa's request for an education waiver is baseless

WASHINGTON - Senator Chuck Grassley is challenging the U.S. Secretary of Education over his agency's overreach in denying Iowa's request for a waiver from some requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act, saying the Obama administration's rationale lacks "democratic legitimacy."

Grassley said the federal law contains no requirement for states to develop a "teacher and leader evaluation and support system," which was the reason given by the U.S. Department of Education in denying Iowa's request.  Grassley said the state-level issue of whether the Iowa Department of Education has the authority to implement such a system is irrelevant in this waiver request because the federal government doesn't have the power to require it.

"If we have learned any lesson from the No Child Left Behind Act, it is that, in our vast and diverse nation, one size does not fit all," Grassley said in the letter he sent today to Secretary Arne Duncan.  "Therefore, I ask that you invite states to submit waiver requests that are entirely locally designed and that you establish an objective process to review such waiver requests that evaluates them on their merits, free from any specific federal policy agenda that has not been enacted by Congress."

Grassley said the matter of what specific education reforms are right for Iowa is between the Governor, the Iowa Legislature, and the people, not the federal education agency.

The text of Grassley's letter to Duncan is below.  Click here to see a signed copy of the letter.

June 29, 2012

The Honorable Arne Duncan

U.S. Department of Education

400 Maryland Avenue SW

Washington, DC 20202

Dear Secretary Duncan,

The recent letter to the Director of the Iowa Department of Education signed by your Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education denying the State of Iowa's request for a waiver from certain federal requirements raises some serious concerns.  This letter makes clear that the denial is based on the fact that the Iowa Department of Education does not have the authority to implement a "teacher and leader evaluation and support system" that contains six specific components.  Section 9401 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides that states or school districts can apply to waive certain requirements of that law and sets out the required components for such a waiver request.  Nowhere in this section, or anywhere else in federal law, is there a requirement for states to develop a "teacher and leader evaluation and support system" and nowhere in the law is the Secretary of Education granted the authority to require the implementation of new policies that are not in existing law.

As you know, the Iowa Department of Education lacks the authority to implement such a system because the Iowa Legislature considered the matter and declined to grant that authority.  As a federal elected official, it is not my place to say whether or not that was the right decision.  I admire Governor Branstad's commitment to education reform, but the details of what specific reforms are right for Iowa is a matter between the Governor of Iowa, the Iowa Legislature, and the people of Iowa.  It is certainly not the place of the U.S. Secretary of Education to condition relief of certain federal requirements on the adoption of a whole new federal policy agenda that has never passed Congress and therefore lacks democratic legitimacy.

It is important to recognize that real innovation and reform cannot be imposed from the top down, but must come from the ground up.  What works in one state or community may not work in another.  If we have learned any lesson from the No Child Left Behind Act, it is that, in our vast and diverse nation, one size does not fit all.  Therefore, I ask that you invite states to submit waiver requests that are entirely locally designed and that you establish an objective process to review such waiver requests that evaluates them on their merits, free from any specific federal policy agenda that has not been enacted by Congress.

Sincerely,

Charles E. Grassley

United States Senator

  • So thorough

    Thanks for this exhaustive coverage.  I agree the feds don't want any old plan, or even a sensible plan.  They want a plan that puts the pressure on teachers while ignoring the other factors that determine student progress.

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