By Lynn Campbell
DES MOINES — Iowa on Tuesday joined three-fourths of the nation in applying for a waiver from the 2001 No Child Left Behind federal education accountability law.
“Though No Child Left Behind brought some positive changes, it is generally more known for its shortcomings and failures,” said state Education Director Jason Glass. “Today marks a moment of opportunity for Iowa’s schools — an opportunity for this era of blame and shame to come to an end.”
Gov. Terry Branstad said it makes a lot more sense for Iowa to have its own accountability system — which takes into account Iowa’s rural school districts — rather than trying to comply with a “national kind of one-size-fits-all system” aimed at failing, urban schools.
Critics of the federal law say it sets unrealistic goals, such as having 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.
Donna Owen, 42, a mother of three from Guthrie Center who attended the annual homeschooling day at the Capitol, praised Iowa leaders for applying for a waiver.
“I think any time a state takes the initiative to set our own guidelines, that’s important,” said Owen, who homeschools her children, ages 11, 8 and 6. “I’d like to see the states do that more. So, for that reason, I would like to see them step away (from No Child Left Behind).”
But getting a waiver from the federal law depends on a state’s ability to show it has an alternate plan for accountability, including new student standards and assessments, better identification of top performers and help for struggling schools, and improvement of teacher and principal evaluations.
Branstad and Glass warned that a failure by the Iowa Legislature to approve bold education reforms this year will force the state to withdraw its application to get a waiver from No Child Left Behind.
“Neither the status-quo policy framework, nor an overly watered-down version of education reform, will meet what has been written into Iowa’s NCLB waiver,” Glass said. “Failure to act, or failure to act with boldness, will both result in a withdrawal of this waiver application.”
Branstad said Tuesday he is disappointed with what he’s seen from the Legislature on education reform so far.
“We should not be afraid to be bold and do good things that are going to really, dramatically improve education,” Branstad said. “I believe that watering down our aggressive education reform is a mistake … I am disappointed that we don’t have something more aggressive out of committee.”
An Iowa House plan would:
No longer require that students get a 3.0 grade-point average for admission into teacher-preparation programs, as proposed by Branstad;
While the governor proposed that all 11th-graders take a college entrance exam, the House plan would give students the option of a college entrance exam or a career readiness test;
And while Branstad proposed allowing 100 percent of instruction to be delivered online, the House plan says that online schools cannot deliver instruction solely online.
An Iowa Senate plan, meanwhile, is described by observers as smaller and more modest. While it goes along with Branstad's plan of moving teacher reviews from every three years to every year, the Senate plan would require that two of those reviews be done by peers, instead of by supervisors.
Senate Education Chairman Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said the education-reform package developed by Senate Democrats includes some elements of the governor’s waiver application.
“However, we have no interest in supporting some of the risky, unproven proposals contained in this application,” Quirmbach said. “It doesn’t make any sense to pass bad state policy in an effort to get a waiver from bad federal policy. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Groups representing Iowa’s school boards, school administrators and urban school districts said they support Iowa’s waiver application from No Child Left Behind.
“It moves Iowa education closer to our vision of aligned standards, curriculum and assessment,” the Urban Education Network of Iowa said in a prepared statement. The network is a consortium of 17 school districts, including Iowa's eight largest, which enroll nearly 40 percent of Iowa's public school students.
A poll released last week shows the majority of Iowans surveyed support annual evaluations for teachers, end-of-course exams for high school students, and holding back third-graders who struggle to read, as proposed by the governor. The poll of 800 Iowa adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
But the state teachers’ union did not sign off on Iowa’s waiver application.
“While we understand the need to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to testing and school accountability under NCLB, the ISEA still has questions about the specifics of this application that need to be addressed,” said Chris Bern, president of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents more than 34,000 educators.
Bern said one area of concern for educators is tying student achievement data to teacher evaluations.
“As frontline professionals, our members need to be at the table when those decisions are made, and the state should be cautious when proceeding with this large policy shift,” Bern said. “In addition, we are concerned that implementation of the waiver application will require resources, and education funding decisions are still a long way off in the legislative session.”
The education reform plan proposed by Branstad and Glass would cost $25 million in the first year, including $17 million in new money and $8 million reallocated from other areas.
Eleven states applied in November and have received a waiver from No Child Left Behind: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Iowa was expected to be one of 26 states, along with the District of Columbia, to apply in the second round of waiver applications by Tuesday’s deadline.