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VOL. 127 | NO. 28 | Friday, February 10, 2012

Tennessee Granted NCLB Waiver

By Bill Dries

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Tennessee made another cut in the changing federal education reform scene: The state is one of 10 granted a waiver from No Child Left Behind standards.

President Obama said the waivers are a “green light to continue making the reforms that are best for them.”

“Each of these states has set higher benchmarks for achievements,” he added.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has been anticipating the news from Washington for weeks.

The waivers for Tennessee and nine other states is significant nationally because it is a departure from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind standards that required yearly progress by students over a short period of time until all were performing at acceptable education standards.

Critics argued that the standards were always intended to change before reaching the outer years. But when that didn’t happen, even backers of the standards, including U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said NCLB held school districts and states to an unrealistic standard that didn’t give schools enough credit for making progress with students who were near the bottom in terms of their performance and remained underperforming students by the standards.

But the Obama administration wanted the states to come up with a plan to replace the federal standards with their own before a waiver was granted.

“We’ve offered every state the same deal,” Obama said. “We said if you’re willing to set higher more honest standards than the one set by No Child Left Behind then we’re going to give you the flexibility to meet those standards.”

In Tennessee’s case, the plan includes an Achievement School District for many of the state’s bottom 5 percent schools in terms of performance scores on state achievement tests. Many of those schools are in the Memphis City Schools system.

“Tennessee is creating a state-wide school district to aggressively tackle its lowest performing schools,” is how Obama described the effort.

With Thursday’s waiver announcement, Haslam is expected to move ahead with the ASD, specifically announcing two Memphis City Schools that will be converted to state-run charter schools starting with the 2012-2013 school year.

“We’re just waiting to make sure it’s in line with what he wants and what is in state law right now,” said Jeremy Jones, communications manager for the Achievement Schools. “We’re still in a holding pattern. But we’re anxious to get going and make some announcements soon.”

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic has already named two charter school operating companies who will work in one MCS elementary school and one MCS middle school. He hasn’t announced which specific schools they will operate from. The ASD charter schools are different from conventional charter schools because they are operated directly by the state and do not require school board approval.

They could open all at once or they could be phased in with one or two grades per school year.

The other schools in the ASD, which includes low-performing schools in other parts of the state, will be run by the local school districts who will collaborate with the ASD to make changes as well.

The activation of the ASD in specific schools adds another element to a local public education system already in the midst of watershed changes. The ASD charter schools would open the year before the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools merge into one school system. The two school systems are already controlled by a countywide school board that merged last October.

Leaders of Shelby County’s suburban towns and cities are also considering starting their own municipal school districts separate from the consolidated countywide school system, also starting with the 2012-2013 school year.

Haslam shared the podium with President Obama last year on the subject of education reform.

The Obama administration’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, has worked closely with Haslam on the state’s education reforms begun under Haslam’s predecessor, Gov. Phil Bredesen.

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