State lawmakers have largely abandoned their bid to regain Washington’s waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, and instead are waiting on Congress to save them from sanctions imposed by the federal school accountability law.
Washington became the first state in the nation to lose its waiver from No Child Left Behind last year, after state lawmakers failed to change the state’s teacher evaluation system to meet federal demands. That led to 88 percent of the state’s schools being labeled as failing last year, and meant that districts had to send letters home to parents announcing their schools’ failure to meet federal standards.
Without a waiver for the 2014-15 school year, school districts throughout Washington also had to redirect about $38 million in federal Title I grant money toward tutoring programs —– ones often run by private companies — instead of using that money for other district programs for low-income students.
Some state lawmakers this year had sought to fix the issue that caused the U.S. Department of Education to revoke Washington’s waiver: that state law doesn’t require student scores on statewide tests to play a role in teacher and principal evaluations. Instead, school districts in Washington can rely solely on other tools — such as locally developed or classroom-based tests — to measure student growth for the purpose of evaluating teachers and principals.
But now, five months after lawmakers first convened in Olympia, a bill aimed at regaining the state’s waiver has stalled in the Legislature. And many Democratic lawmakers say that’s a good thing, given the progress being made on the issue in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, introduced compromise legislation this spring that would update No Child Left Behind and no longer require states to implement teacher evaluation systems. The measure cleared a U.S. Senate committee in April, and could come to the floor of the Senate for a vote later this month, according to Murray’s office.
“If the bill is signed into law, Washington state would no longer need a waiver from No Child Left Behind,” said Helen Hare, a spokeswoman for Murray. “That would restore some certainty.”
State Rep. Chris Reykdal, a Tumwater Democrat who is the vice chairman of the state’s House Education Committee, said he and many other state lawmakers think tying teacher evaluations to statewide testing data is a bad policy that doesn’t improve educational outcomes. Washington lawmakers shouldn’t embrace those changes if Congress will soon act to make the waiver issue a moot point, he said.
“We are feeling like we are going to get this flexibility and get our money restored,” Reykdal said. “I don’t think we should race right now to do something that the U.S. Department of Education is mandating, when it’s not what we believe is the best policy and we’re going to get flexibility to do it the right way anyway.”
The statewide teachers union has fought against changing the state’s teacher and principal evaluation system, saying that linking teacher evaluations to statewide test scores doesn’t improve student performance and is unfair to teachers.
Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island and the chairman of the Senate education committee, said he still thinks the state should do what’s necessary to get its No Child Left Behind waiver back, but he doesn’t think there’s enough support in the Democrat-controlled state House. The state Senate approved a bill this year to make statewide testing data a mandatory part of teacher and principal evaluations, but the measure never advanced out of the House Education Committee.
Litzow said he thinks it is unwise for the Legislature to rely on Congress to remedy the issue, given that Congress has been unable to pass updates to No Child Left Behind for the past eight years. The law, which Congress originally approved in 2001, expired in 2007. But states must continue to abide by it until a new law replaces it.
Since then, states have sought waivers from the federal government to exempt their schools from No Child Left Behind’s requirements, including that 100 percent of students be passing statewide tests in math and reading by 2014. More than 40 other states have waivers from parts of No Child Left Behind.
Litzow said he’s particularly unhappy that school districts across Washington this year could once again lose control over 20 percent of their federal Title I grant money, which is designed to help struggling and impoverished students.
“Unfortunately, we are forsaking the most vulnerable kids in our state,” Litzow said.