Increase in Flexibility Useful but Limited by Scope of Waiver Authority
T-HEHS-99-67: Published: Feb 25, 1999. Publicly Released: Feb 25, 1999.
Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the Education Flexibility Partnership Demonstration Program (Ed-Flex), which authorizes 12 states to grant waivers (temporary exceptions from certain federal requirements) to their local school districts, focusing on: (1) the scope and limitations of the current Ed-Flex waiver authority; (2) opportunities for expansion to more states under current eligibility requirements; and (3) the challenges posed for the Ed-Flex program of balancing the two objectives of achieving federal program oversight and offering flexibility to state and local school districts.
GAO noted that: (1) states participating have generally found Ed-Flex to be a useful tool for achieving flexibility and promoting educational reform efforts even though--because of the limited scope of its waiver authority--it does not address many of their key concerns about implementing federal requirements; (2) Ed-Flex allows waivers from specific requirements within six major education programs, the largest of which is title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but not from many other federal education and noneducation requirements, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the school breakfast and lunch programs, and environmental requirements; (3) Ed-Flex waiver authority does not address district officials' key concerns such as their need for accurate and timely information on federal requirements and the limited funds available to meet their program and administrative costs; (4) the Ed-Flex program cannot be expanded to a significant number of additional states unless the current requirement that the states have an approved plan for education reform under Goals 2000 is modified and the states make major changes in their ability to waive state-imposed education-related requirements; (5) ten states are ineligible for the Ed-Flex program because they do not have an approved Goals 2000 education reform plan, even though they can waive state statutes and regulations related to education; (6) of the remaining 28 states not currently in Ed-Flex, only 2 clearly have the statutorily required authority to waive state-imposed requirements; (7) Ed-Flex creates challenges in holding districts accountable for the results of individual waivers and also in holding states, districts, and the Department of Education accountable for the results of federal programs that are affected by these waivers; (8) some Ed-Flex states have developed specific goals and have established clear and measurable objectives for evaluating the effect of waivers; (9) many Ed-Flex states, however, have established no goals or have defined only vague objectives; (10) the Ed-Flex statute and the Department's guidance have given the states little specific direction on how to ensure accountability in return for the greater flexibility provided in the program, and the Department has exercised limited oversight of the program; and (11) more specific guidance and more explicit federal direction might be difficult given the variation the types of waivers that are allowed and the circumstances prompting them.