Students pay price for lawmakers’ spinelessness

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wasn’t bluffing when he told Washington lawmakers earlier this year they risked the education equivalent of the death penalty: loss of the state’s No Child Left Behind Act waiver.

The ax came down Thursday after the Legislature failed to change the state’s teacher evaluation system to comply with the federal NCLB. Of 43 states and the District of Columbia that have been granted a waiver from some elements of NCLB, Washington became the first to have its revoked. Sadly, the state’s at-risk students will be most affected by lawmakers’ inaction.

Washington will now be considered out of compliance with the Bush-era education law that expired in 2007 but has not been updated by Congress. That failure to act is why the Obama administration has granted waivers as long as states make an effort to comply with key education reforms such as teacher accountability. Losing the waiver means the state will incur a cascade of NCLB penalties after the current school year.

The primary one: Schools will no longer be able to use more than $38 million in federal Title I funds on district programs for low-income students, and instead will have to spend it on private tutoring or busing kids to other schools. Most schools in the state will be considered to be failing under federal law.

In Tacoma, the district’s share of that money – nearly $2 million – has been used to add preschool to five elementary schools and provide instructional coaching at all low-income schools.

In order to increase educator accountability, NCLB requires that student performance on state standardized tests must be one of the factors used in evaluating teachers and principals – and this editorial board has supported that. But state law only says that school districts may use state standardized tests for that purpose.

State lawmakers had plenty of time to make the minor change to state law on evaluation criteria – essentially involving changing the word “may” to “must.” But they caved to pressure from the powerful state teachers union and adjourned in March without taking action. The union did what unions are supposed to do: protect their members’ interests. It was the legislators’ failure that they couldn’t muster the backbone to act.

There are good arguments on both sides of the issue of whether NCLB puts too much emphasis on standardized testing. But until or unless that law is changed – and given the intransigence in Congress that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon any time soon – that’s the law the state has to live with if school districts are to control how they use federal Title I dollars and avoid the blunt instrument that is NCLB.

Other states have been able to live with the NCLB evaluation requirement. Washington’s failure now casts it as an outlier, which could affect school districts’ ability to serve at-risk students and attract good teachers. Gov. Jay Inslee and Randy Dorn, superintendent of public instruction, need to double down on state lawmakers next year to change state law on evaluations.