Warming up to an NCLB waiver

John and Kathy co-wrote this post from Sacramento.

For the second time in as many months, the acting Assistant Secretary of Education came to California  to call on the State Board of Education to apply for a waiver from most of the requirements and penalties of the No Child Left Behind law. All but ten states have either formally applied for a waiver or indicated they would in the next round. California is the only one of the ten that Michael Yudin has visited.

“Our effort here is to release the pressure valve of No Child Left Behind,” Yudin told the State Board on Wednesday, noting that 3,900 schools in California already face sanctions under NCLB’s Program Improvement designation. “We are creating the opportunity to create space and remove barriers to allow states to be innovative and creative.”

Yudin’s pitch seems to be working. Just two months ago, Board members were skeptical of the costs and the conditions that would come with the waiver and declined to take any action.

On Wednesday, they directed staff at the state Department of Education to start gathering information for a potential vote at their next meeting in March on applying this summer.

Even State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson now seems amenable. When Education Secretary Arne Duncan first proposed the waivers in September, Torlakson balked at what he projected to be a $2 billion cost and rigid conditions for meeting the waiver.

“If the administration understands the complexity and the diversity of the state of California, and the financial pressure we’re under, we would design a customized waiver. I believe there is opportunity here,” said Torlakson.

As Torlakson knows, without a waiver no Title I school in California will meet NCLB’s demand that every student score proficient on the California Standards Test. When that happens, they’ll also lose control over a significant portion of their Title I dollars and face a narrow range of federally prescribed improvement options.

Concern over losing that money drew nearly a dozen superintendents from around the state to Sacramento yesterday to plead with the Board to seek a waiver.

“This is a point of desperation,” said Sanger Unified Superintendent Marc Johnson, whose tiny 11,000-student district stands to lose control of $500,000. Sanger has been using that money on its own intervention programs, which he credits with increasing the district’s high school graduation rate to 94 percent.

“Children in this state will be harmed because of the failure of state agencies to take action and embrace this,” said Johnson.

He and the other superintendents said the Board needs to be aware of the demoralizing effect of having schools be labeled as failures and the burdens that come with sanctions.

Waivers wouldn’t even be an issue if Congress had reauthorized NCLB five years ago, as it was  supposed to. There’s a consensus on Capitol Hill and in the Obama Administration that the bill has major flaws that have to be fixed. Yet there’s little chance of that happening before the November election.

Strings are attached

The Obama Administration is offering states the opportunity to create their own school improvement models, but with new conditions that in some ways are more far-reaching.

  • Teacher and principal effectiveness: Every teacher and principal must be evaluated using multiple factors including, for teachers, their ability to boost student test scores;
  • A new accountability system for closing the achievement gap: The Administration wants the states to develop interventions for students in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and, in a new requirement, for students in schools with the largest achievement gaps – 900 schools in California.
  • Accelerated implementation of Common Core standards and career and college readiness standards: The state is well on its way to meeting these requirements.

Several of these and other factors have given the Board pause. A key concern is that these conditions – especially teacher and principal evaluations – would become mandates for all schools, not just Title I schools, which the state would have to fund.

Board members also pressed Yudin about what happens three years out when either the waiver ends or the federal government, under NCLB’s successor, seeks to impose new sanctions if they fail to meet the requirements of the waiver. Would they lose money or be reinstated in Program Improvement?

Yudin wouldn’t predict the future, given the uncertainty of possible partisan shifts in Washington, D.C.  But he did try to allay fears of the costs and stress the flexibility that California would have in designing its plan.

The California Teachers Association in particular has opposed any use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. But Yudin said that the federal government is offering a lot of latitude to the states. He noted that Massachusetts, a recipient of Race to the Top funds and one of the 11 states that has already submitted a waiver application, will only be using test scores to validate the accuracy of the other measures.

Meanwhile, Alice Petrossian, president of the Association of California School Administrators, promised the State Board that ACSA would take the lead in developing criteria for evaluating principals. For the past year, ACSA been working on the issue and potential legislation.

The cost of these programs, said Yudin, could in large part be borne by money the federal government is already providing to the state. This includes $268 million in Title II professional development money that could go toward teacher training for Common Core and teacher and principal evaluations. An additional $239 million in Title I dollars that Program Improvement schools currently have to set aside for federal interventions would be freed up for the alternative plans that the state would create.

Despite these assurances from Yudin, several Board members remained uneasy about potential costs to the state and the short two-to-three-year timeline to get all these new statewide programs up and running. “Would you relax requirements to move forward in a timely way because of the fiscal constraints facing states?” Carl Cohn asked Yudin.

Yudin said the states would have a lot of leeway in what they propose as long as the plans are implemented statewide within three years; however, he emphasized that this is not a competition where states will be scored against one another.

“I do believe that it is an iterative process,” said Yudin. “We will do everything we can to help states.”

Pushing aside reservations was Board member Yvonne Chan, the principal of a national blue ribbon charter school that is now in Program Improvement. “I strongly urge you to think outside the box,” Chan, whose term ends this week, urged her colleagues on the Board.

In Chinese, opportunity is two words, explained Chan, holding up a slip of paper on which she had written Chinese characters. “The first stands for risk, the second for success. No risk, no opportunity, folks. If we wait for everything to be absolutely perfect we’re never going to do it,” said Chan.  “If we can have this collective confidence in ourselves, then we can fix this, we can come up with new solutions for these persistent problems.”

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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