State school districts unlikely to secure No Child waiver

Successful efforts in California result in joint waiver for 8 districts

Staff writerMay 9, 2014 

The success of eight California school districts that won their own waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law has some in Washington wondering: Can school districts here do the same?

Probably not, say federal and state education officials. But that hasn’t stopped the idea of a district-level waiver from being bandied about in education policy circles.

Some school districts are discussing a district-level waiver as an option, even if they haven’t yet decided whether to pursue it.

“It’s on our radar,” said Dan Voelpel, spokesman for Tacoma Public Schools. “We are continuing to discuss the possibility.”

Washington lost its No Child Left Behind waiver last month, meaning school districts statewide will lose control over about $40 million a year in federal money to help low-income students. The money will have to be redirected toward outside tutoring programs — one of several consequences of schools failing to meet the achievement standards of the 2001 federal law.

It’s a fate that many school districts hoped to avoid. The U.S. Department of Education told state lawmakers they could preserve Washington’s waiver by making student scores on statewide tests a mandatory part of teacher and principal evaluations — something school district leaders in Tacoma and Seattle urged them to do.

But the Legislature, facing intense pressure from the state teachers union, didn’t act this year.

At the time, some lawmakers said they thought it might be possible for larger school districts in Washington to emulate the California districts and seek a waiver independently of the state. The possibility was raised by those who questioned the need for legislative action to keep Washington’s waiver.

Talk of a potential district-level waiver resurfaced after an April 28 speech in Seattle by Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy, who spoke at a luncheon sponsored by the education reform group Stand for Children.

“Don’t give up,” said Deasy, after describing how school districts in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, Fresno, Sanger and Santa Ana joined together to apply for their own waiver last year.

Yet federal and state officials said this week that the circumstances in California were unusual and that Washington’s situation is much different.

Unlike in Washington, California officials didn’t seek a waiver last year to exempt their state from the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA.

Inaction at the state level caused the eight California school districts to forge ahead on their own, and for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to give their request special consideration, said Dorie Turner Nolt, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education.

“We are open to looking at the district waivers issue only in those states that are not in the process of requesting, or have not been approved for, ESEA flexibility at the state level,” Nolt said in a statement relayed by a staffer.

The eight California districts together serve about 1.2 million students – slightly more than make up the entire public school system in Washington.

Given the smaller size of Washington’s largest school districts, it’s unlikely they could persuade the U.S. Department of Education to give them their own waiver, said Alan Burke, deputy superintendent for K-12 education at the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“I just think it’s really a long shot,” Burke said.

The eight districts in California also committed to using standardized test scores as a part of teacher evaluations — the same thing Washington lawmakers and the state teachers union opposed this year.

“Any local waiver would probably require the use of state test scores in evaluations, and that’s the sticking point,” wrote Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, in an email.

State law already requires that student test scores play a role in teacher evaluations, but it lets districts choose which tests they will use: classroom-based, school-based, district-based, or statewide. Duncan cited that policy as his primary reason for revoking Washington’s waiver in April.

Seattle Public Schools, which already uses data from statewide tests in its teacher evaluations, would appear to be in an ideal position to seek its own waiver or collaborate with other districts to apply for one. But the district of about 50,000 students — the largest in the state — doesn’t intend to pursue that option, wrote district spokeswoman Teresa Wippel in an email.

Even if a group of Washington school districts did apply for their own waiver, their application probably wouldn’t be approved in time to help them during the 2014-15 school year, said Burke, the OSPI deputy superintendent.

Without the state waiver, school districts are already planning their budgets for next year around the need to redirect 20 percent of their federal Title I grant money.

Partly due to the waiver loss, school officials in Tacoma are considering staff cuts to avoid axing Title I-funded preschool programs.

“You might get in the queue and not even have a decision until fall or winter, and by that time you’ve already put your money aside,” Burke said.

Burke said state education officials are looking ahead to January, when legislators return to Olympia and could reconsider changes to teacher evaluations — a step that could help the state reclaim its waiver in the future.

“A year from now, it’s an entirely different political situation,” Burke said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209

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