U.S. Department of Education Approves ESEA Flexibility Renewal for Five States through Expedited Decision Process

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U.S. Department of Education Approves ESEA Flexibility Renewal for Five States through Expedited Decision Process

March 31, 2015

The U.S. Department of Education announced today that Kentucky, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia have each received a four-year renewal for flexibility from provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

This year, Congress is working on an overhaul of ESEA, which has been due for reauthorization since 2007. But until a new law is in place, the law continues to stand. This means states need a new round of waivers that provide flexibility from top-down, prescriptive provisions of the law so that they can continue implementing innovative changes that ensure all children receive a high-quality education. These four-year renewals provide states with stability as they continue to work on preparing all students for success in college, careers and life.

"While a strong, bipartisan reauthorization of the law remains our top priority, we want to continue to empower state and district leaders to develop plans designed to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity and improve the quality of instruction," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. "We will continue to partner with states to support them through the ESEA flexibility process - starting with these five states."

ESEA flexibility has led to a greater focus on ensuring that schools have the same expectation of college- and career-readiness for every student. States are focusing resources on comprehensive, rigorous interventions in the lowest-performing schools, while ensuring that all low-achieving students have the supports they need to catch up to their peers. ESEA flexibility has had the effect of energizing teacher and principal effectiveness work across the country and put the focus on creating feedback systems that show the impact teachers and principals are having on student learning and shine a light on best practices to support teachers' development.

Under NCLB, schools were given many ways to fail but very few opportunities to succeed. The law forced schools and districts into one-size-fits-all solutions, regardless of the individual needs and circumstances in those communities.

The five states approved for flexibility today are on track to fully meet their commitments under the flexibility program. They were invited to participate in an expedited review process, developed with input from states, which included submitting their renewal requests in January and meeting with senior staff at the Department in person. They will have flexibility through the 2018-19 school year.

Since being approved for ESEA flexibility, these states have implemented bold education reforms leading to fewer low-performing schools; a narrowing graduation gap among minority and white students; and increased focus on professional development for teachers, principals and superintendents.


  • The state created an aligned statewide system of professional growth and effectiveness for teachers, principals and superintendents that focuses on continuous improvement.
  • Kentucky increased the college- and career-readiness rate among high school graduates from 34 percent in 2010 to 62.5 percent in 2014, and the state's graduation rate has increased to 87.5 percent.

"Kentucky has made much progress to date and we are grateful to the United States Department of Education for the opportunity to move ahead with our continuous improvement process, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said. "However, what Kentucky and all other states really need is a stable, long-term plan for moving public education forward that is accomplished only through the congressional reauthorization of ESEA."


  • The state built a more transparent, meaningful and useful accountability system that puts a greater focus on achievement gaps. The state used key data to create report cards that are user-friendly and mobile so that parents have information about how schools and districts are doing.
  • Minnesota created Regional Centers of Excellence - part of a statewide system that focuses on the state's lowest-performing schools. Nearly 75 percent of the schools that worked closely with the Regional Centers saw improved student achievement, and 43 percent are no longer designated as low-performing.

"Minnesota's waiver has been a great success," said Minnesota Commissioner of Education Dr. Brenda Cassellius. "Our waiver brought additional urgency to our efforts to close achievement gaps and improve outcomes for all kids, and paved the way for a fairer, more transparent accountability system that helps provide targeted support to schools that need it most, while shining a light on schools that are successfully raising achievement for all students."

New Mexico

  • New Mexico has moved away from a pass/fail accountability system to one that provides schools, educators and parents with actionable information about their school's performance, leading to real improvements for our students. The state identifies struggling schools and targets specific resources, which has led to 48 percent of schools with improvements among the lowest-performing students and raised their letter grade.
  • The state created incentives for schools to enroll more students in Advanced Placement (AP) courses by giving schools extra points on the statewide school grading system for students who score 3 or higher on AP exams. In the last year alone, the state saw a 7.8 percent increase in tests taken and a 5.2 percent increase in students scoring 3 or better on the exams.

"In New Mexico, we have created a system of support and accountability for our schools that provides individualized support where it is needed and recognizes the accomplishments of our schools and educators in ensuring our students are prepared for success in college and career," said New Mexico Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera. "We have set higher standards for our students, as well as implemented School Grades and an educator evaluation system called NMTeach, both of which focus on student outcomes and growth. Over the last four years, we have seen record growth in the achievement and outcomes for New Mexico's students, and we will continue to work tirelessly on behalf of every single New Mexican student."

North Carolina

  • The waiver gave North Carolina the freedom to raise standards without fear of labeling every school as failing to make "adequate yearly progress," which includes sanctions that hurt schools rather than focusing on improving them.
  • The waiver has provided flexibility to use limited federal resources to ensure that statewide education goals are met: a great teacher in every classroom and a great principal in every school; college- and career-ready standards; turning around the lowest performing schools; and data systems to improve instruction. North Carolina's graduation rate is at an all-time high – 83.9 percent.

"While waiting for Congress to reauthorize ESEA, we are grateful for waivers that give North Carolina the flexibility to focus on improving student achievement and growth, supporting educators, and innovating for the next generation of learners," said North Carolina State Superintendent June Atkinson.


  • Virginia provided extensive professional development to teachers on the revised college- and career-ready standards of learning, and provided targeted staff training on narrowing and closing achievement gaps. Nearly every subgroup is meeting or exceeding targets for both math and English language arts.
  • Districts and schools are now accountable for ensuring all student subgroups — including English language learners and students with disabilities — meet the federal graduation benchmarks. The focus on subgroups has led to increased support for students in subgroups with lower graduation rates.

"The waiver has allowed our divisions and schools to focus Title I funds and other resources on interventions that result in students receiving personalized support sooner rather than later," Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples said.

All other states that want to either continue flexibility or apply for the first time must submit an application by the end of today. The Department will work to make decisions on those submissions through late spring and summer.

In the event that Congress reauthorizes ESEA, the Department will work with states to help them transition to the new law. Duncan has called on Congress to create a bipartisan ESEA law that:

  • Gives teachers and principals the resources they need, and invests in districts and states to create innovative new solutions to increase student outcomes;
  • Makes real investments in high-poverty schools and districts, and in expanding high-quality preschool;
  • Holds high expectations for all students, and requires that where groups of students or schools are not making progress, there will be an action plan for change;
  • Identifies schools that are consistently not making progress and dedicates extra resources and support, including in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools that are struggling year after year;
  • Addresses funding inequities for schools that serve high proportions of low-income students.

The letters to the five states approved for ESEA flexibility renewal are available through the ESEA flexibility page.