Texas, the state that launched school accountability as an experiment, has applied to untangle itself from parts of the federal No Child Left Behind mandate, the same law that experiment eventually yielded.
The deadline was Thursday for states to take President Barack Obama's administration up on its offer to waive parts of the law in exchange for implementing elements of the White House's education agenda. Texas announced that, like at least 40 other states, it wanted out, too.
"NCLB’s reauthorization in a timely manner has created an obsolete system that does not adequately reflect the accomplishments of the state’s schools," the state's education chief Michael Williams wrote in an open letter Thursday. By the law's definition, in Texas 47.8 percent of schools -- and 27.6 percent of its school districts -- made "adequate yearly progress" this year.
When campaigning in 2008, Obama promised to release states from the 2002 law, a signature initiative from President George W. Bush that requires standardized testing of students and a system of penalties for low test scores.
The law expired in 2007. Despite a few attempts, Congress has failed to rewrite it, so the administration began offering states relief from its toughest parts.
"People are making promises," said Sandy Kress, a Texan largely viewed as the grandfather of No Child Left Behind who now works as a lobbyist for companies like Pearson. "Will they fulfill them or not? He's [U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan] done some incredible watering down of accountability, so here we are. Now we have Texas, believing that it ought to get some relief, wanting to just integrate its own accountability system.
After a stint in the Jimmy Carter White House, Kress became interested in education and began looking at standardized test scores. For decades, the test scores of Dallas' minority students had increased, gains most experts attributed to civil rights. But starting in the late 80s, the scores began to stagnate. So in 1990, Kress proposed a plan called "accountability" to allow educators more say over school spending, in exchange for tying schools' performances on standardized tests to consequences.
The idea spread and became law under then-Gov. Ann Richards. In 1995, Bush upheld it as law in Texas. By the time Bush became president, a bipartisan consensus had formed around school accountability, and negotiations with Democrats like Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) turned Kress' homegrown idea into No Child Left Behind.
While advocates credit the law for exposing test-score gaps among student groups, even the law's original cheerleaders acknowledge its mechanism for labeling schools that don't make progress is too broad, its mandated tutoring rarely boosts student achievement and the goal that 100 percent of U.S. students be "proficient" in science and math by 2014 is unrealistic.
So in 2010, Obama announced that in exchange for the waivers, states could agree to a plan that included parts of the Obama education agenda, such as "college- and career-ready" standards and grading teachers using, in part, students' standardized test scores. Under the agenda, only 15 percent of each state's lowest-performing schools would be penalized.
But instead of working with the administration's requirements, Texas wants the waiver without strings so it can create its own accountability system. California wants something similar and is still negotiating with the federal government, an official confirmed.
Also seeking waivers right on Thursday's deadline: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire and West Virginia, according to local news reports. In late August, Alabama, said it would apply, and reached by phone Friday, North Dakota's education chief Wayne Sanstead confirmed ND had sent out its request. So far, the Education Department has approved the requests of 33 states and Washington, D.C.; making the total 41 requests overall, including Texas and California.