Loss of Federal Waiver Leaves Oklahoma Education Behind

Yesterday, the United States Department of Education (USDE) revoked Oklahoma’s flexibility waiver that allowed us to circumvent 18 requirements of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). They did so because when our elected officials repealed the Common Core State Standards this spring, with no alternative system of standards deemed college- and career- ready to put in its place, our state fell out of compliance with the requirements for the waiver. 

The loss of this waiver means that Oklahoma schools no longer have the discretion to spend a significant amount of federal money as they see fit. As is the case in nearly every instance of public funding, if a state chooses to accept federal money, there are laws mandating how that money may be spent. It works the same way on a local level: if a local school chooses to accept state funding, they must adhere to state regulations. This is the way our state and federal government hold entities accountable for the responsible spending of taxpayers’ money.

Unfortunately, this waiver revocation isn’t the least bit surprising to the education or business communities, who vehemently warned against such a hasty repeal last spring. When the legislature passed HB 3399, the authors, Rep. Jason Nelson and Sen. Josh Brecheen, stated very directly that they recognized the loss of this waiver could bring repercussions and that local districts might lose control of how federal education dollars are spent. Ironically, the result of our politicians’ hasty, politically motivated actions will bring more federal control to our schools – not less, as professed in almost every political advertisement these days. When Adequate Yearly Progress is calculated, it is expected that more than1,600 Oklahoma school sites will fall into one of the original school improvement categories under NCLB which requires all students to be proficient by 2014.

Drastically Different Interpretations by the SDE and the Legislature

Documents provided at the State Department of Education’s (SDE) press conference yesterday explained that there will be an immediate impact. “Under the waiver, school districts had extreme flexibility in spending significant portions of federal dollars. Those funds will be affected immediately,” and, “This year, that could be as much as $20 million to $30 million.” [Emphases in the original.]

Previously, districts often directed this federal funding toward hiring additional teachers to address a dramatic statewide shortage. Now they will have to comply with the federal requirements as to how the money should be spent. According to the SDE, that will mean transferring funding from wherever a district is currently directing it toward professional development and supplemental education services. USDE documents outline that of the 18 federal requirements we had previously been waived from meeting, 16 of them take effect immediately. Two will be delayed until the 2015-16 school year.

But to hear Rep. Nelson discuss it, Oklahoma schools have no cause for concern. “I don’t think it’s a big deal,” “There is no loss of money,” and “This is a non-event event,” were all statements he made in his press conference yesterday afternoon following the SDE’s announcement. When a reporter asked State Supt. Barresi whether teachers would have to be laid off this year as a result of this loss of funding, she explained she didn’t know yet, but “some districts will have very unfortunate fiscal impacts.” Nelson’s response to the same question only minutes later: “I have no reason to think that. There is no loss of funding.”

$30 Million Is An Enormous Increase, But a Meaningless Cut? 

The most frustrating moment surrounding this issue came at the end of Nelson’s press conference when OEA communications staff asked Rep. Nelson to explain the discrepancy between his office and Supt. Barresi’s as to whether Oklahoma schools stand to lose discretion over $20-30 million this year. Nelson expressed that even if we did lose that amount, “that’s only one half of one percent of what we spend on education in this state anyway.”

It appears a double standard when politicians pat themselves on the back when they vote increased funding for education, but dismiss an event like this as meaningless.


 

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