Wyoming will not receive a federal waiver that would ease consequences for schools under the No Child Left Behind Act, according to a Wyoming Department of Education email obtained by the Star-Tribune.
The email, dated April 23, stated issues from the state's past waiver applications could not be resolved in time to gain approval for a waiver for the next school year. It was sent by Jennifer Peterson, the department's director of Title I funds.
Peterson did not respond to a phone message and department officials declined to comment on the email. However, the Star-Tribune obtained a copy of a memo from Superintendent Cindy Hill on Monday evening that confirmed Wyoming will not receive a waiver.
The agency's former director also confirmed the state chose not to apply for such a waiver because Wyoming's accountability model would likely not have met federal guidelines and because the agency was undergoing a change in leadership. Wyoming applied for but did not receive a waiver in 2012. Last year, Wyoming received a partial waiver that froze ever-rising benchmarks at a prior year's level, said Richard Crandall, the department's former director.
The U.S. Department of Education began offering flexibility to states that developed their own accountability systems in 2011, when reaching No Child Left Behind's goal of every student testing at or above proficient by 2014 became increasingly unlikely for more and more states.
The first phase of Wyoming's state-run accountability system was piloted in schools this year. It will take effect this fall.
But it likely wasn't ready for the U.S. Department of Education standards, according to Crandall.
"We've got to finalize our model before we present it to the feds," he said Monday. "We can't say, 'It's a work in process.'"
When Crandall left the department in late April, he had recommended Gov. Matt Mead not apply for a waiver, he said. The state's school accountability model did not place enough emphasis on graduation rates and continuing technical education to meet federal requirements, and there was not enough time before the federal government's May 1 deadline to make the changes.
An inevitable transfer of power at the agency also discouraged Wyoming from applying for the waiver, Crandall said. In January, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled in favor of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, who was temporarily ousted from the agency by a law in 2013. Crandall resigned and Hill returned to the agency in late April.
The transition would not have helped the state's case when asking for a waiver, Crandall said.
"Whenever a state is in transition, the feds automatically take a very cautious approach," he said.
Not having a flexibility waiver means most Wyoming schools will be labeled "failing" under federal accountability rules, which laid out proficiency targets set to rise every year until they reached 100 percent. This year, all students are expected to be reading and doing math at or above grade level.
For the first year a school is labeled failing under No Child Left Behind, no severe consequences are enforced. In subsequent years, however, schools face tighter restrictions on how to spend federal Title I funds and may be asked to replace principals or staff. The state will also have to notify parents in low-performing schools that they have the right to transfer their children to stronger schools.
For as long as Wyoming doesn't have a waiver and No Child Left Behind is still the law of the land, Wyoming schools must comply with two different sets of accountability rules.
That creates a perception problem as well as practical problem for Wyoming, said Mark Mathern, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Natrona County School District. A school may be failing under the terms of No Child Left Behind but meeting expectations under the state's rules.
"It confuses the public," Mathern said. "What am I supposed to believe here? Is my school a good school or isn’t it?"
It also creates a challenge for districts facing potential consequences for high-performing schools labeled failing under No Child Left Behind. In that case, Mathern said, he would recommend focusing on the state's requirements.
No Child Left Behind had great intentions but in the end doesn't work, Mathern said. Lawmakers are several years overdue to rewrite the law behind No Child Left Behind but have not yet agreed on what to change.
It's unclear whether the Wyoming Department of Education will seek another type of waiver to freeze the rising proficiency targets to past years' levels, as Wyoming was granted last year. A U.S. Department of Education website stated Wyoming's waiver application was under review and linked to an application from last year.