Torlakson: Waiver to cost billions

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson didn’t rule out President Obama’s invitation to seek a state waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, but he definitely sounded negative in his first public statement on the idea.

“We are carefully examining the proposal, which would appear to cost billions of dollars to fully implement, at a time when California and many other states remain in financial crisis,” Torlakson said in a statement released late Friday.

He elaborated: “I would hope that the Administration is prepared to provide the funds necessary to implement these provisions, or provide greater flexibility to California, which already has a strong school accountability system in place.”

Torlakson is arguing that a waiver, with its promise of flexibility and freedom from NCLB’s sanctions and deadlines, also establishes an expensive unfunded mandate requiring states to take on additional costs of fixing hundreds low-performing schools.

His spokesman, Paul Hefner, elaborated in a voice mail. One condition of the waiver is to continue state responsibility for “priority schools” – the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools receiving federal Title I money. Now Obama is adding “focus schools” – an additional 10 percent of schools where there are wide achievement gaps among subgroups of students.

There are 305 priority schools in California, Hefner said, and the federal government, through School Improvement Grants, is spending $2 million per year each to turn around the first group of them. Multiply $2 million by 305 schools, and that’s $610 million the state could be responsible for; throw in 610 focus schools at $2 million each for another $1.2 billion, and the price tag could grow to $1.8 billion before getting to other obligations, Hefner said.

It is true that Obama is offering no additional money with the waivers – and House Republicans wouldn’t let him even if he wanted to. But Torlakson is assuming the worst-case scenario in costs and assuming no benefits from flexibility – the ability to shift Title I money to use as the state deems fit. He’s offering a novel criticism of the waiver deal that I haven’t seen other governors and state school officials make.

I have questions about his cost estimates, too.

The state currently is not spending its own money for the lowest-performing schools. The 92 that are receiving up to $2 million each in federal School Improvement Grant dollars voluntarily applied for the money. The others, which either chose not to seek the grants or were turned down, aren’t obligated to do or spend anything. Torlakson is assuming that the state will now have to assume responsibility, at $2 million a clip, for all of the lowest-performing schools – those getting the money now and those that aren’t.

But small schools are not getting $2 million in SIG grants; the average grant for the 92 schools is $1.5 million per year. And the number of Title I schools on the list of lowest-performers is only 188, by the state’s determination.

Doubling that number for focus schools comes out to only 376. And there’s nothing in details released by the Obama administration so far that implies that the federal government expects spending anything on the magnitude of $2 million – the cost of turning around an entire school – for narrower objectives in focus schools.

Torlakson is right to press the feds for details, but the Obama administration is saying that states that receive waivers will be able to shift portions of Title I allocations $1.6 billion to California this year – for focus schools and other priorities. One area of flexibility: the money that Title I schools facing NCLB sanctions must now spend for after-school tutoring and transportation of students who opt to attend a school with higher test sores.

Congressman George Miller: Question of will, not money

U.S. Rep. George Miller of Martinez, ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, took issue with Torlakson’s statement as well. Miller supports Obama’s plan for waivers.

Asked to comment, he said in an email, “This would not cost billions. Instead it would allow California more flexibility with the billions of dollars it already receives and would free up millions of dollars for districts to use as they know best. This isn’t a question of money, it’s a question of will.”

States that do not apply for a waiver or don’t meet the requirements will have to continue with NCLB’s current demands, which include the requirement that all students be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014. Those schools that don’t meet the ever-increasing proficiency targets will be designated as failing schools, with sanctions.

Instead of a waiver process, Torlakson said that Congress should proceed to reauthorize NCLB, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, allowing states like California to adopt their own accountability systems. There’s no indication, however, that Republicans and Democrats will put aside differences and reauthorize the law any time soon – and possibly not before the November 2012 presidential election.

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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