The Executive Viewpoint: Department of Education says welcome back waivers

In the 1970s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter,” about a teacher who returns to his old high school to teach a group of kids who call themselves “sweat hogs,” character Vinnie Barbarino routinely brought in excuses for his absences. Read aloud by Mr. Kotter, they always concluded with: “Signed, Vinnie’s mother.”

With the Obama administration suggesting they will consider waiver requests if Congress doesn’t pass a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, I guarantee Vinnie’s mother will be signing a lot of notes to the Education Department this fall.

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During my tenure at the helm of the Education Department, I received countless requests for waivers, many bordering on the ridiculous. Despite the law’s requirement that each state set targets and educate all of its students to grade level in reading and math by 2014 — a 12-year window in which to comply — states routinely sought ways to get out from under the law. For example, Utah repeatedly asked the department to allow its teachers to educate only 80 percent of its students to grade level. And Kentucky wanted to make accountability determinations for schools every other year instead of annually. We rejected both requests. 

Interestingly, I found that state employees sought relief, often without the knowledge of their governor or other elected officials. For example, in response to urging by Bill Gates at the 2005 National Governors Association’s National Education Summit to get serious about dropouts and to report accurate data on graduation rates, all 50 governors signed a pledge to report accurate graduation rates. Despite this, three years later, only 9 states had done so. It took regulation in 2008 to get the other states on board.

Earlier this year, Kansas submitted a waiver request seeking to keep its annual accountability targets at current levels to ease the transition to new assessments — a process they estimated would take four years to complete. I’m glad to see that Education Secretary Arne Duncan denied that request. 

Virginia, however, met with better luck. Last year, Secretary Duncan allowed Virginia to set aside its proficiency targets for 2010-11 and beyond for an undetermined period of time. Educators in the state were allowed to have no goals for which to be held accountable.

When Congress was working to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 2001, they asked some simple questions, among them: Are taxpayers getting a return on their investment? Are we closing the achievement gap? Are we educating all children to compete in the global knowledge economy? Sadly, the answer was no. Not even close. 

In 2000, only 14 percent of Hispanic students and 11 percent of African-American fourth-grade students were proficient in reading. The good news is that some progress has been made: in 2009, 20 percent of Hispanic students and 18 percent of African-American students tested proficient in reading. However, when only half of minority students are getting out of high school on time, we must pick up the pace on improvement.

Federal accountability standards are not in place to prescribe what should be taught in our schools; that is better left to states and districts, which pay a majority of the bills. They are meant only to outline broad principles and require states, districts and schools to show progress from year to year. Without them, our low-income and minority students, English language learners, and students with disabilities are too often are left behind. 

Congress is again debating ESEA reauthorization, but instead of getting serious about what it will take to serve all our students, too much of the conversation has centered on how policymakers can ease the pressure on school systems and allow them to only educate a portion of their students. This line of discourse often masquerades as a call for “regulatory relief.” 

I have found that the true advocates for our children don’t shy away from requirements to educate students; they embrace the challenge. In so doing, they rise to the occasion time and time again to the benefit of our most vulnerable students. They know and believe that our schools are capable of getting all children to grade level and beyond. 

Instead of excuses, we need progress. 

Spellings is the former U.S. secretary of Education. She serves as president and CEO of Margaret Spellings & Co. and as president of the U.S. Forum for Policy Innovation at the Chamber of Commerce.