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Oklahoma wins back its No Child Left Behind waiver

The Obama administration decided Monday to restore a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law to Oklahoma, three months after it had pulled the waiver because Oklahoma had dumped the Common Core State Standards and reverted to its old K-12 reading and math standards.

The reversal from Washington means that Oklahoma’s public schools are once again free from the most onerous demands of No Child Left Behind.

Janet Barresi, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, said she was grateful for the reversal. “The ramifications of losing the waiver would have been significant and with potentially disastrous consequences,” she said in a statement. “Instead, Oklahoma now has an opportunity to build upon the innovations and successful reforms of recent years.”

Officials at the U.S. Department of Education said they revived Oklahoma’s waiver because the state had proven that its old  standards, the Priority Academic Student Skills, or PASS, were strong enough to adequately prepare students for college or career upon graduation from high school.

The decision came after the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, which oversees the state’s public universities, analyzed the PASS standards and deemed them sufficient.

Approximately 40 percent of Oklahoma’s high school graduates enroll in remedial courses as college freshmen, a fact highlighted by supporters of the Common Core who say the PASS standards are not adequate.

The state adopted the Common Core standards in 2010, and it spent four years redesigning curriculum, purchasing new classroom materials and training teachers in the new standards. But opposition to the Common Core began bubbling up around the nation, and that opposition intensified in Oklahoma.

In May, Oklahoma lawmakers voted to scrap the Common Core State Standards, which were set to take effect there at the start of the current school year.

But the legislature sent its state board of education back to the drawing board with directions to write entirely new standards by 2016 and to use the old PASS standards in the meantime.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), once an advocate of the Common Core, has joined with other Republican governors to criticize the standards as federal intrusion into public education.

A bipartisan group of governors and state education chiefs created the Common Core State Standards in math and reading in 2010 as a way to inject consistency into K-12 academic standards, which have varied wildly from state to state. The standards spell out the skills and knowledge students should possess by the end of each grade. They are not curriculum — states and schools decide how to teach to the standards and the kinds of materials to use.

The Obama administration played no role in the creation of the standards but tried to entice states to adopt them by requiring that states have “college and career ready standards” in order to receive a waiver from No Child Left Behind. Forty-three states and D.C. have adopted the standards.

No Child Left Behind was signed into law by President Bush in 2002 and was due for reauthorization in 2007. Despite widespread agreement by both Republicans and Democrats that the federal law is not working, Congress has failed to come up with an improved version, in part because of  disagreement over the appropriate role of the federal government in primary and secondary education.

The Obama administration, responding to growing pressure from governors, began issuing temporary waivers in 2011 to excuse states from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, in return for their pledge to accept certain education reforms favored by the administration, such as the Common Core.

Forty-two states as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico won waivers under No Child Left Behind.

In August, federal officials told Oklahoma officials they were pulling the state’s waiver because it depended in part on the state’s commitment to higher academic standards to prepare students for college and careers and there wasn’t evidence the PASS standards filled that role.

The loss of a federal waiver meant that all of Oklahoma’s public school students would have to be proficient in math and reading in grades 3 through 12 — a goal widely recognized as unrealistic — or their schools would face various sanctions and restrictions on how they spend federal dollars, starting next school year. Schools would have been required to provide free tutoring and allow students at “failing” schools to transfer to better-performing schools.

At the time, Fallin slammed the Obama administration.

“It is outrageous that President Obama and Washington bureaucrats are trying to dictate how Oklahoma schools spend education dollars,” Fallin said when federal officials pulled the state’s waiver.  “Because of overwhelming opposition from Oklahoma parents and voters to Common Core, Washington is now acting to punish us. This is one more example of an out-of-control presidency that places a politicized Washington agenda over the well-being of Oklahoma students.”

Oklahoma was the second state to lose its waiver from No Child Left Behind. The other state is Washington, which failed to get a renewal because the Obama administration did not endorse the way the state intends to evaluate teachers.

Indian — another state that recently repealed the Common Core — was awarded an extension for its waiver because it replaced the Common Core with rigorous academic standards that its universities validated as college- and career-ready.