Politics & Government

28 superintendents to parents: Schools are not failing

School districts throughout Washington state are starting to notify parents that many of their schools aren’t making the grade, a long-dreaded consequence of Washington losing its waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

But as those letters go out, many Puget Sound districts – including Tacoma – will also be telling parents that No Child Left Behind is “regressive and punitive,” and that their schools aren’t failing at all.

Superintendents from 28 school districts have signed a cover letter that will accompany the official notifications that they are required to send out under No Child Left Behind. That group includes several districts in Pierce and King counties, but none in Thurston County.

The additional letter tells parents that nearly every school in Washington won’t meet the No Child Left Behind requirements this year, and that the 28 superintendents are “proud of the significant academic progress our students are making.”

“Some of our state’s and districts’ most successful and highly recognized schools are now being labeled ‘failing’ by an antiquated law that most educators and elected officials – as well as the U.S. Department of Education – acknowledges isn’t working,” the superintendents’ letter says.

“Our bottom line: Your child’s school district is effectively addressing the needs of all students,” the cover letter reads.

Washington lost its waiver from No Child Left Behind earlier this year after state lawmakers didn’t adjust the state’s teacher and principal evaluation system to align with federal requirements. The U.S. Department of Education said that teacher and principal reviews must incorporate student scores on statewide tests, but Washington state law makes using statewide testing data optional.

As a result, school districts throughout the state are now being forced to comply with No Child Left Behind’s rigid accountability standards. Under the law, 100 percent of students must be meeting state standards in math and reading in 2014.

According to the law, school districts and high-poverty Title I schools that don’t meet the 100-percent standard must send parents letters explaining their inability to measure up. In Washington, that includes most school districts.

Federal rules dictate what schools and districts must say in those letters. But nothing stops districts from tacking on another letter letting parents know how they feel about the situation.

“We’ve got 60 languages, we’ve got high mobility, we’ve got high poverty,” Frank Hewins, superintendent of the Franklin Pierce School District, said Wednesday. “When you have students with those challenges, the metrics established by this law are nonsensical.”

One reason district leaders want to challenge the idea that their schools are failing is that they worry how the letters could hurt their ability to raise money for public education in the future.

“Our school system in this state relies on local support – we have to pass maintenance and operation levies and bonds,” said John Welch, superintendent of the Puget Sound Educational Service District. “We need public support for our schools, and this erodes that.”

Most schools and districts must send their letters out 14 days before the start of the school year. That means that in some districts, letters could begin going out this week, while other districts will probably begin sending letters next week, said Peter Daniels, spokesman for the Puget Sound Educational Service District.

Tacoma Public Schools plans to start sending its letters Monday, a little more than two weeks before students return to school Sept. 3, district spokeswoman Elle Warmuth said.

Parents with students at Title I schools – those classified as high poverty – may also be told their student’s individual school is failing. Those parents may be offered additional tutoring services, as well as the chance to send their child to a nonfailing school, if one is available.

To pay for the extra tutoring and bus services, school districts are being forced to set aside 20 percent of the federal Title I money they receive annually – another consequence of Washington state losing its waiver from No Child Left Behind.

In Tacoma, the 20 percent set-aside amounts to $1.8 million, said Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno.

“The main thing is, we’ve got better ways to spend that money,” Santorno said.