Haslam Seeking Waiver from ‘No Child Left Behind’

Gov. Bill Haslam asked the federal government Friday to let Tennessee opt out of national education standards and replace them with benchmarks set by the state.

The governor asked the Department of Education to allow the state to replace the gauges set by No Child Left Behind, the education reform passed under former President George W. Bush, with state-driven indicators. The state is crafting its own standards under Race to the Top, an Obama administration education initiative.

“This is a case of the federal government should trust the state to do what’s best for the state,” Haslam told reporters on a conference call Friday. “Applying for a waiver is not about making excuses in Tennessee. It’s actually just the opposite.”

Under No Child Left Behind, more than half of Tennessee schools are deemed as failing this year. However, 80 percent of those schools still saw improvements in reading, math, or both, according to state Education Commissioner David Huffman.

“If we do not get a waiver and if Congress fails to act, we will be back here in a year announcing that the vast majority of schools in the state failed to meet (adequate yearly progress). We can grow student achievement levels by 5 percent, by 10 percent across the board and that would still be true,” said Huffman, who contends current standards are distracting the state from focusing on other reforms.

This year, 78 Tennessee school districts and 806 schools failed to meet the annual progress measures set by the U.S. Department of Education.

Under the current guidelines, that could mean roughly 140 schools could be eligible for a state government takeover in 2015 and as many as 1,500 schools two years later. Last year, 13 schools’ performance qualified them to be taken over by the state.

“While No Child Left Behind has been very invaluable, we feel like it maybe outlived its usefulness in its current form,” Haslam said.

“It needs to be overhauled, we don’t see the action from Congress to do that any time soon and then finally, we think states really do know what we should do. We think we proved that in our Race to the Top application,” he continued.

Haslam’s predecessor, Phil Bredesen, led the state’s reforms to qualify it for the Race to the Top grant. But he contended at the end of his term that the federal government is often prone to authority-overreach in matters of public education.

“Our K-12 system operates with a lot of reference to and rules promulgated by the Department of Education, and the Department of Education pays about 10 percent of the bill and has no responsibility for educating the kids or any of those kinds of things, and that’s kind of a creepy invasion of that,” he told TNReport in December.

The U.S. Department of Education offered up in June that it would work with states that have problems measuring up to No Child Left Behind, assuming Congress doesn’t get around to reshaping the act before adjourning in August.

While Tennessee has a long way to go in turning around education outcomes, changing the state’s expectations so they make sense closer to home is a good first step, said Jamie Woodson, the former state senator who helped promote the Race to the Top education reform ideas. She’s since become CEO of SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

“A challenge that Tennessee faces is fitting this bold reform plan within a meaningful federal accountability framework,” she said.

Asking the federal government to change how it holds Tennessee accountable on education constitutes Haslam’s most visible attempt at telling Washington what to do.

Haslam has called for federal disaster relief after floods swept through the state earlier this year, and joined other governors in pushing back against higher fuel economy standards and asking for more flexibility in the Medicaid insurance program for the poor.

He has leaned on Attorney General Bob Cooper to challenge the national health care act and, along with other states, seek to police illegal immigration. But Haslam has avoided officially calling for the federal government to act on those issues.

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