Torlakson wants NCLB waiver

Entering the Beltway’s latest fray, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has joined leaders in other states in calling for a reprieve from the No Child Left Behind law – but without the strings that U.S. Secretary of  Education Arne Duncan is considering attaching. The most contentious would be a waiver to states contingent on adopting teacher evaluations linked to student test scores.

Because of  “shortcomings of the NCLB accountability system, I believe flexibility is appropriate, warranted and urgently needed. California schools need immediate relief from the escalating sanctions imposed on schools that fail to make” the yearly academic targets under the law, Torlakson wrote Duncan in an Aug. 23 letter that he copied to the state’s congressional delegation and leaders of U.S. Senate and House Education Committees. Torlakson called for a freeze on identifying and penalizing additional schools not meeting targets.

Duncan first raised the idea of granting state waivers in June, and President Obama endorsed it this month, because Congress has stalled over the reauthorization of NCLB – or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as it’s formally known.

Waivers in lieu of congressional action

Reauthorization is already four years late. Obama called on Congress to fix NCLB this year, but, with Republicans and Democrats at odds on everything these days, substantial action on the bill is increasingly unlikely until after the November 2012 election. Without relief from the bill’s chief provision  – that all students be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014 – Torlakson predicts 4,600 schools, or 80 percent of schools receiving federal Title I funds, will face penalties by 2011-12. (Because of technicalities in the law, it’s probably closer to 50 percent – see an earlier explanation). Regardless, the large number of schools in Program Improvement adds stress to districts and dilutes already stretched resources, Torlakson wrote.

Duncan agrees, and has said he’d be showing “tone deafness” to ignore the pleas of states and districts for relief.

At issue are the conditions he’ll set for the waivers. The feds will release the criteria in September. Duncan has said he would grant waivers only to states that set a high bar for reforms. According to those privy to discussions, requirements could include a continued commitment to turning around  low-performing schools, implementing teacher and administrator evaluations partly based on results of student test scores, and adopting rigorous career- and college-ready standards.  (After conservatives protested, Duncan quickly backed off demanding the adoption of Common Core standards, which states voluntarily have embraced, as a condition of a waiver.)

Republican congressional leaders are threatening to sue if Duncan issues waivers, and are charging that the White House would exceed its authority to demand reforms outside of NCLB and federal law. Many state leaders, including Torlakson, agreed.

“Finally, the conditional nature of the waivers creates problems for California,” he wrote, warning against imposing “dramatic deviations from existing policies under NCLB.” Changes such as the ones Duncan is considering should be done through Congress and the reauthorization process, he said.

In his letter, Torlakson laid it on pretty thick, overstating the state of reform in California.

“I am now working with our state Legislature on the next generation of schools accountability systems in order to evaluate schools more appropriately and effectively,” he wrote. “Moreover, we are moving toward a more robust teacher and principal evaluation system that considers numerous research-based elements, including student outcomes, multiple observations and the California Standards for the Teaching Profession.”

So far, there has been more talk than walk.

What Torlakson is referring to is his recently released Blueprint for Great Schools, an aspirational document with worthy goals but no traction yet, and two bills before the Legislature. SB 547, which Torlakson sponsored and Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg authored, would transform the Academic Performance Index, the chief accountability measure of schools, into an Education Quality Index to de-emphasize a school’s test scores and focus on other measures, such as graduation rates and success in preparing students for college or careers.

AB 5, by Democratic Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, would mandate a new evaluation system for teachers. It remains a work in progress and a year away from adoption. (Check back: I’ll be doing an update on the bill next week.)

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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