W.Va. Stuck in 'World of Waivers' Until Congress Passes Education Bill

Jul 27, 2015

In early 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping education reform bill. The new law required all states to test all children and set federal benchmarks for student achievement in order to receive federal funding. 

Two pre-K students in Kanawha County play computer games that teach them shapes, numbers and colors in the classroom.
Credit Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

West Virginia implemented the reforms and West Virginia Department of Education Chief Accountability Officer Michelle Blatt said the state did see some incremental improvements under the law. Still, she said, one size fits all from Washington did not work in West Virginia. 

“It didn’t matter if you started in one place and really grew a long way," she said, "there were still sanctions if you didn’t meet the bar that they set.”

 

Now, some 13 years later, members of Congress are thinking of turning that legislation on its head by passing a reauthorization that is essentially a rewrite. 

 

West Virginia Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin voted in favor of the Senate's version of the reauthorization, titled the Every Child Achieves Act. The bill removes federal achievement benchmarks and puts the power back in the hands of the states to set both achievement goals and accountability measures.

 

“The federal strings are not going to be tied to whether or not you’re meeting certain standards, certain national standards, you have to meet the state standards," Capito said. 

 

A House version of the bill also pushes authority back to the states, but does not use annual testing as a measure of accountability for states like the Senate version. The House's bill also allows more flexibility for the use of federal dollars, some which Blatt said could actually hurt West Virginia, including a measure that would allow federal dollars to travel from school to school with low income or special needs students.

 

That measure, Blatt said, could prohibit schools from creating an overarching program to increase achievement because of a lack of funds.

 

Still, Blatt said state control over accountability is a good thing, but a thing West Virginia has had since it received a flexibility waiver from the U.S. Department of Education in 2013.

 

The waiver, which was recently renewed and now expires in 2018, could be taken away from the state at any moment, Blatt said, after a new President is elected or a new Secretary of Education is appointed. That leaves the system unstable. 

 

“I think the important thing about it is just that they can reach agreement and we can get legislation and move forward so that we know there is something set in stone," Blatt said.

 

"The time that’s been spent writing waivers, the hours that have been spent on peer reviews, re-writing waivers to get approval, that [time] could have been spent working with schools and really making more of a difference.”

 

Because of a debate in Washington over federal highway funding, the debate over No Child Left Behind will likely be pushed off until Congress returns from their summer break in September.