More gain, no pain NCLB waiver

Gov. Jerry Brown described his relationship with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as a “work in progress” after a face-to-face meeting last week in Washington. Californians will soon find out how much progress if the State Board of Education next week approves a very different request for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law than the one Duncan will be expecting.

Again assuming the role of the nonconformist state, California would ask Duncan for immediate relief from NCLB’s spending constraints and penalties without having to jump through the hoops that Duncan is demanding of other states. One of those is the adoption of a teacher and administrator evaluation system that would include student test scores  as a factor – a requirement that the California Teachers Association staunchly opposes.

“California state law and our current fiscal condition make it virtually impossible to implement all of the waiver requirements in every district and school in the state,” says a draft letter to U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Yudin that would be signed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board President Michael Kirst if the State Board approves. Unlike other states that have applied for a waiver, California would not try to negotiate a better deal. The state would argue that the waiver is warranted in its own right; districts want it, and student achievement would ultimately rise if California could be out from under much of NCLB.

The federal Department of Education thus far has granted waivers to 11 states; the next deadline, to which several dozen states may apply, is this week. A final deadline is Sept. 1, but it would be too late for a waiver for the 2012-13 school year. California would ask for an immediate two-year waiver.

Torlakson, who has called Duncan’s waiver requirements an overreaching swap of one set of burdens for another, is pushing the “state-devised” waiver idea. State Board Executive Director Sue Burr has followed its development and presumably informed Brown, another sharp critic of NCLB, the Race to the Top competition, and other Obama administration education reforms.

Brown probably has a better chance of trouncing Duncan one on one in basketball than California has in getting the waiver approved. But California would be making a point with its request: The waiver that the state is seeking is justifiable and permissible; it’s Duncan who is stretching his authority by demanding concessions for a waiver beyond what’s contained in NCLB.

California is not asking for all of the benefits from a waiver that Duncan is offering but it is seeking the primary ones: flexibility to use $353 million in Title I money now restricted to tutoring and transporting students to their districts of choice, and release from having to identify and prescribe turnaround programs for schools identified as failing under NCLB. In testimony before the State Board, superintendents have cited these benefits in calling for the state to pursue Duncan’s waiver option. Districts with Title I schools – about 60 percent of the state’s 10,000 schools – would still have to spend the money on low-income students, but could use it, say, for preparing teachers for Common Core standards or for their own school improvement plans outside of NCLB’s limited models.

In return, Duncan is requiring that states commit to:

  • Adopt and implement college- and career-ready standards. California has partly met this by adopting the Common Core standards, but the state Department of Education estimates that the state and districts would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two years in training teachers and purchasing textbooks – money the state doesn’t have or, in the case of instructional materials, lacks the current authority to approve. Other states have negotiated the deadline.
  • Create a new school accountability system that identifies 15 percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps or the worst performance and create improvement plans for them. High-performing schools would be rewarded. State officials assert that Duncan is requiring adoption of a new state assessment system that tracks student growth from year to year, even though Common Core assessments would replace them in two years.
  • Pass a new evaluation system for teachers and administrators while providing value-added student test scores to math and English language arts teachers. State education officials point out that the state cannot promise that the Legislature will revise the current Stull Act and, if it did, that unions and school boards in the every school district would negotiate the adoption next year.

Paul Hefner, spokesman for Torlakson, said the Superintendent considers the state’s proposed waiver “a third way” – a reasonable solution to districts’ need for flexibility and consistent with the “spirit of the law’s waiver authority.”

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" (www.TOPed.org), 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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