Wisconsin Granted No Child Left Behind Waiver; School Accountability Becomes an Even Higher Priority in the Badger State

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

After months of working with federal authorities, Wisconsin is finally free from No Child Left Behind regulations. The Department of Public Instruction announced today that Wisconsin’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Flexibility Request – better known as the waiver through which the state would wean itself from NCLB rules – had been formally accepted by the U.S. Department of Education.

The announcement is the culmination of months of laborious work from the DPI, who worked closely with federal agents to meet the requirements set forth by the waiver regulations. Their success means that the state will now take on a new era of school accountability across Wisconsin’s public school classrooms. With less federal oversight, state entities will now have more responsibility than ever before to ensure that students are performing well and that their schools aren’t failing them when it comes to providing an education.

This means that Annual Yearly Progress, the process used to measure public schools under NCLB, will be gone. Instead, it will be replaced by an accountability index that provides a more thorough and precise understanding of how a school is performing. The lowest performing schools will be targeted for the highest levels of intervention. The target of this program is to provide help where it is needed the most without losing sight of the institutions that may be on the brink of failure.

This signals another step forward in sweeping reform for Wisconsin. The state already had big changes in place for public education behind the Read to Lead and Educator Effectiveness programs. Those reforms, respectively, are aimed at improving reading skills in the youngest grades and creating a better system for grading teachers. Combined, they should help change the face of education in the state for years to come.

The NCLB waiver itself was a dense and difficult project that stretched over months to complete. The methods and plans contained within were partially informed by the upcoming school accountability program, which sought to grade schools and teachers based on performance and other measures even before the waiver came into place. However, the process came under fire when reports emerged that federal administrators suggested that they still had problems with the state’s application back in May.

That turned out to be smoke with no fire behind it. The intervention of Department of Education agents was a planned process to aid the development of the waiver and ensure that it would be accepted in a timely manner. This relationship between the state and the DOE helped create a stronger application and ultimately led to its approval. With today’s news, Wisconsin became the 26th state in the union to earn freedom from an outdated federal program.

This is the tip of the iceberg, however. There is much work to be done, and the implementation and design of school accountability programs will be a never-ending and arduous process. Still, this newfound freedom from unrealistic NCLB standards will give the state greater opportunities that before when it comes to providing a better level of education for its students.

Wisconsin will have to seize this opportunity to implement strong reform. Districts now have more control than ever before over the schools in their jurisdiction, and that power, coupled with a more comprehensive system of school accountability, needs to be used to create a transparent system that clearly shows parents and citizens how their local schools are performing. That information will give communities the basis they need to help the schools that are underperforming, shutter the schools that can’t be fixed, and replicate the ones that are excelling.