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Huffman Optimistic TN’s New, Long-Form NCLB Waiver Request Will Win Approval

State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says a new request for a waiver on the No Child Left Behind law will be hundreds of pages long, as opposed to the original app’s slim seven-and-a-half pages. But Huffman is still sounding an optimistic tone on the state’s chances of approval.

Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman says Tennessee is still “well-positioned” to get a waiver from the federal government on the No Child Left Behind law, although the state was caught off-guard by some criteria for the move.

Tennessee applied for a waiver in July and expected a fairly quick response. The state had also heard substantial positive feedback from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about its chances of getting the waiver.

But the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance material in September outlining what was required in the waiver process, and the state is looking at a Nov. 14 deadline to submit a revised application.

Huffman acknowledged one aspect of the guidance came “out of left field.” That item requires the state to identify 10 percent of its schools where achievement gaps are pronounced and how to address them.

The achievement gaps could be in any number of subgroups, such as how white students perform compared to non-whites, or how students from low-income families perform compared to other students.

Huffman said there is a lot of overlap in the state’s original waiver application and what is required in the follow-up, but he noted the “focus schools” in the 10 percent looking at achievement gaps presented the department with a new task in terms of requirements and specificity.

“This we did not anticipate until we opened up our guidance at the end of September,” Huffman said.

He said the state would attempt to target interventions for schools with achievement gaps, and he said competitive federal grants could provide the resources needed.

A later deadline than Nov. 14 will also be available early next year for states to apply, Huffman said.

“People have suggested only 5 or 10 states are positioned to get a waiver in the first round, primarily because most states have not gone down the path on some of the things we’ve gone down the path on,” Huffman said in a presentation this week to the Tennessee State School Board. “So I think we’re well-positioned relative to our peers to get a waiver.”

Huffman said the state’s original waiver request was seven-and-a-half pages long, but he expects the Nov. 14 application to be hundreds of pages long, including attachments.

The commissioner said one strength in the state’s application, as in the original application, is its intervention efforts on the bottom 5 percent of schools in proficiency. Those efforts include Tennessee’s steps in developing its achievement school district.

Huffman said the federal government has not said publicly when a response to the application could be expected, but he said the state would like to hear results by the end of this year. The process would involve simply meeting criteria for the waiver and would not be a matter of Tennessee competing with other states.

Many states have complained about unrealistic expectations in the No Child Left Behind law as it stands pertaining to adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

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