DES MOINES, Iowa — The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday denied Iowa's request for a waiver from key provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind rules.
Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass said agency rejected the state's application because lawmakers in an education reform bill passed this year required any changes in teacher evaluations to be first approved by the Legislature.
"This was a missed opportunity for Iowa's schools to find relief from a law that holds them to unrealistic measures and then blames them for failure," Glass said. "We made it clear to the Legislature in committee meetings and in writing that the Iowa Department of Education needed statutory authority to move forward on implementing a waiver-compliant evaluation system. The Legislature did not follow through."
Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen said the House's bill included broader reform that may have met the criteria to get the federal waiver, but in negotiations with the Democrat-backed Senate much of it was removed.
"Obviously we're open to a much broader-based bill," he said. "I think the bill we passed, while it might not be enough to qualify for the No Child Left Behind waiver, I do think there are some meaningful pieces in there."
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat who chaired the education committee, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Iowa submitted its proposal to the U.S. Department of Education in February. Glass said it was well-received by the agency and met all requirements except for the teacher evaluations.
The federal agency wanted states to create a teacher evaluation system with specific features, including at least three performance levels and performance measurements based on student achievement data.
However, Iowa lawmakers passed a bill in May that did not give the state Department of Education the authority to develop and implement evaluation and support systems that meet the waiver requirements. Instead, the bill directs a task force to study these issues and make recommendations for the 2013 legislative session.
Gov. Terry Branstad, who had called for much larger reforms than lawmakers provided, blamed the Legislature, which he said "did too little to improve our schools despite repeated warnings."
He suggested that lawmakers could come back in a special session to pass broader reform that would meet federal approval.
"The U.S. Department of Education, however, left the door open to approving Iowa's request for flexibility if lawmakers come back to the table and pass meaningful reform that gives the Iowa Department of Education the authority it needs to update evaluations now," he said in a statement.
His spokesman, Tim Albrecht, said Branstad would agree to a special session only if there is a previously agreed-to education reform package.
Branstad had pushed for broad education reform for nearly a year and had introduced a $25 million program.
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He and House Republicans had proposed increased teacher evaluations, holding back third-graders who do not meet reading benchmarks and competency tests for 11th-graders.
The bill that passed in May was a mostly unfunded policy-only measure that was the product of a joint House-Senate committee. Both chambers had previously approved different versions.
Getting a waiver from No Child Left Behind is important because the law, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, uses rigid measures of success that critics say unfairly targets schools in poor areas.
Glass said it also uses blame and shame to try and improve schools, which he said doesn't make schools better.