DES MOINES - Iowa's education department director filed a request Tuesday to opt out of the No Child Left Behind Act, saying a plan now before the state Legislature would ensure greater accountability and higher performance by schools than the unpopular federal program.
Agency Director Jason Glass said Iowa is among 26 states that have indicated they would seek a waiver from the federal act by the Tuesday deadline. President Barack Obama already has granted waivers to 11 other states, allowing them to ignore the federal rules.
Glass expressed optimism that reforms before the Iowa Legislature would result in a more effective and less rigid process than No Child Left Behind, a program signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 that was intended to hold schools accountable for the performance of all students. Despite initial bipartisan support, the act quickly became unpopular as educators argued that many schools couldn't realistically meet the requirements and that it unfairly stigmatized some schools as failures.
"This new accountability system will be central to our work to transform Iowa's good schools into world-class schools," Glass said at a news conference. "Today marks a moment of opportunity for Iowa schools, an opportunity for this era of shame and blame to come to an end."
However, Glass said Iowa's proposal will fall apart if legislators don't approve school reforms proposed by Gov. Terry Branstad. Those include new tests for 11th graders who want to attend college and career readiness exams for other students, new exams for 4-year-olds and requirements that teachers be evaluated annually and must demonstrate proficiency in their field. The plan also seeks to link teacher evaluations to student performance, though officials haven't offered many details.
Without those changes, Glass said Iowa would have to stick with the federal program.
"If nothing happens in this legislative session, then I would have to withdraw the waiver request," Glass said.
Glass said it's unclear when federal officials will announce whether they will grant Iowa's waiver, but he expects to get feedback from the U.S. Department of Education in the spring.
At his weekly news conference earlier Tuesday, Branstad pressed lawmakers to act on the education reform. Besides meeting the waiver request, Branstad said the changes would help meet the needs of a changing workplace.
"We should not be afraid to be bold," Branstad said. "We need to dramatically improve education. We need to make sure we are preparing our young people for these jobs."
Committees in the House and Senate have approved versions of the school reform package, and Glass said "each contains elements that move in the right direction" but don't go far enough.
Some education groups support the proposed education changes, but so far the state's teachers union has been skeptical of some elements.
Chris Bern, president of the Iowa State Education Association, said in a written statement that his group wouldn't support the waiver request because of questions about tying student testing data to teacher evaluations.
The union also expressed concerns about whether the state would put up enough money to properly fund the changes.
Bern said the union was willing to work with education officials to resolve its questions, and Glass said talks with the teachers would continue.
"We are committed to staying engaged in that conversation," Glass said.