Indiana’s NCLB waiver dispute: Is someone playing politics?

The latest and arguably the most disconcerting chapter in the feud between Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and the State Board of Education concerns the state’s efforts to keep its waiver under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Recall that the U.S. Department of Education warned Indiana in May that it was placing a condition on the waiver. Ritz’s state Department of Education scrambled to file an amended waiver proposal by a July 1 deadline. Then the Center for Education and Career Innovation, a new state education agency created by Gov. Mike Pence, responded with a blistering, 28-page critique of the IDOE request.

Claire Fiddian-Green, Pence’s assistant for education, emailed the document last week not just to the state education department and state board members, but to federal education officials. Last Wednesday, the state board approved a resolution that harshly criticized Ritz’s handling of the issue.

The CECI critique says the board of education sets education policy in Indiana, and to not weigh in on the waiver request “would be a failure to discharge the statutory responsibilities of the SBOE,” especially since the proposal includes policy changes and conflicts with established rules and statutes.

I’ve read through the CECI document a couple of times, and I don’t see much in the way of alleged violations. Instead, most of the comments seem to boil down to:

  • The agency doesn’t think the state education department can be trusted to do what it says it’s going to do. There are numerous suggestions that the IDOE outreach coordinators charged with working with schools aren’t up to the job.
  • CECI wants to pin the blame on Ritz for the tension that’s erupted at state board meetings in past months. There are statements to the effect that board members tried to raise issues related to the waiver but Ritz wouldn’t let them.
  • Ritz has done things in the past – not part of the waiver proposal – that CECI doesn’t like. The document goes on about her decision in 2013 that schools could go easy on using test scores to evaluate teachers because of the computer glitches that disrupted ISTEP+ exams that year.

From reading the critique, you’d expect there to be almost nothing to the waiver extension request. In fact, someone did a lot of work in a short period of time. It makes numerous updates to the 2012 Indiana waiver request, adding about 150 pages of single-spaced text and more than 200 attachments. At the same time, folks who expected Ritz to depart from the path taken by her predecessor, Tony Bennett, may be disappointed. The basics, including A-to-F grading of schools, test-based evaluations of teachers and state intervention in low-performing schools, are still there.

But regardless of what you think about the specifics of the state DOE waiver application – and regardless of whom you blame for the Ritz-board standoff – a few things are clear:

  • Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote to the nation’s chief state school officers – in Indiana, that’s the superintendent of public instruction — to offer the NCLB waivers in 2011. He didn’t write to governors. He didn’t write to state boards.
  • The U.S. Department of Education’s NCLB flexibility page says the department invited state education agencies, or SEAs, to apply for waivers. In Indiana, the SEA is the Department of Education.
  • Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle wrote to Ritz on May 1, telling her the feds didn’t like what Indiana was doing and she – Ritz – needed to step up. Delisle didn’t write to Pence. She didn’t write to Fiddian-Green. She wrote to Ritz.

CECI and the state board seem to be saying the board needs to approve any policy-related changes in Indiana’s waiver. But looking through old minutes, I don’t find evidence the board voted on Indiana’s original 2012 waiver request, which did make policy changes. Bennett updated the board several times on the status of the request. Once there was a brief board discussion of the topic.

Finally, there’s the question of why Fiddian-Green went to the feds with CECI’s objections. CECI officials say federal officials asked for the input. But in an email exchange with state staff, USDOE deputy assistant secretary Joe Walsh says Fiddian-Green reached out to the feds and asked to share feedback.

At stake with the waiver is whether Indiana school districts can decide how to spend about $200 million a year in federal funds. Fiddian-Green says CECI is “committed to Indiana successfully renewing its waiver.” Trashing the state’s application doesn’t seem like the best way to show it.

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One thought on “Indiana’s NCLB waiver dispute: Is someone playing politics?

  1. And where was the state school board, which is charged with the responsibility of setting standards for our state schools, when the LEGISLATURE voted to interfere with their responsibility by voting to pullout of common core? That was the domino that started this cascade into chaos! Glenda testified at hearings that if they did that, our federal money would be at risk! Please remember, it was legislative overreach that caused this whole situation.

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