No action yet on NCLB waiver

An unconvinced State Board of Education took no action Wednesday on a request for a wavier from the No Child Left Behind law being pushed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

Torlakson’s staff at the California Department of Education will now have another two months, until the State Board’s May meeting, to strengthen its waiver application in what in the end could prove a quixotic effort to persuade U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to make an exception for California.

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have responded to demands that Duncan has set for two-year relief from NCLB’s biggest burdens and sanctions. The conditions include implementing the Common Core national standards, adopting a statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals that uses student achievement as a factor, and creating improvement plans for turning around 15 percent of schools that either are the lowest achieving or have the biggest achievement gaps.

Torlakson’s view is that California has the legal right, as do other states, to a waiver but that California cannot afford some of the conditions – spending hundreds of millions of dollars in teacher training and materials for NCLB – while the timeline for other conditions, such as changing teacher evaluations this year, is too compressed or would be too contentious.

There’s no clear consensus on which route to take. Advocacy groups that include Education Trust-West and Children Now, plus the seven districts that led the state’s Race to the Top application, want to apply now for Duncan’s waiver, which includes some flexibility in Title I spending for low-income children. But the state PTA, the California Federation of Teachers, and most of two dozen district representatives who attended an information meeting last week on Torlakson’s and CDE’s general waiver concept indicated support for it, according to Fred Tempes, director of the Comprehensive School Assistance Program for WestEd, who conducted the meeting.

What all agree on is the need for immediate relief from the sanctions of NCLB, including its unattainable requirement that all students be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014. Nearly all of the state’s schools could be designated as failures – with letters to parents notifying them of that – within two years.

“One hundred percent proficiency leaves every child behind,” Elliott Duchon, superintendent of Jurupa Unified in Riverside County, told the State Board. While he said he supported a general waiver, if that doesn’t work he urged  “keeping the door open to the Duncan waiver.”

Christine Swenson, head of  CDE’s Improvement & Accountability Division, acknowledged that the state has no idea whether federal officials would respond quickly enough to grant relief in 2012-13 if the state were to apply for a general waiver in May. The state could turn around and apply in September for a waiver under Duncan’s conditions, but that wouldn’t take effect until 2013-14.

Until last Friday’s meeting of invited representatives, CDE hadn’t presented its idea for a general waiver. In a summary of the meeting, Tempes wrote that there was agreement that the “CDE’s proposal was not bold enough in describing California’s position” and didn’t point out actions that California was already engaging in to prepare for Common Core.

As reported earlier this week, the Association of California School Administrators has offered specific ways it says could make a general waiver more palatable to Duncan, including a commitment to halve the number of students who aren’t proficient in math and English language arts in six years.

EdVoice, whose president, Bill Lucia, was at last Friday’s meeting, called for enforcing the long-ignored requirement under the current law on teacher and principal evaluations that results on standardized tests be a factor. (EdVoice  is suing Los Angeles Unified on this issue.) Others say that a general waiver offers California the opportunity to present a new accountability system that builds in student growth toward proficiency on tests (as opposed to 100 percent proficiency by a certain date) but also incorporates other metrics, including Gov. Brown’s suggestion in his State of the State address for school inspections.

“No Child Left Behind has done more to create unity about what is wrong with federal involvement in education,” said Board member Patricia Rucker. “But a waiver application needs to be strong and bold not just to get out from under NCLB” but also to present priorities for filling gaps in policy that the state has already acknowledged.

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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