State Board to discuss NCLB waiver

Costs and benefits of waiver will be studied

To no surprise, California took no action Wednesday, the early deadline for states to indicate an intent to seek a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act.*** But that doesn’t mean that the state has decided it’s not interested, Sue Burr, Executive Director of the State Board of Education, said this week.

Burr said she has discussed with the state Department of Education the need for a cost-benefit analysis to compare the impact of the actions needed to qualify for the waiver with the benefits of promised spending flexibility from the law’s requirements. The State Board will discuss issues surrounding a waiver and listen to what the public has to say about the idea at its next meeting, on Nov. 9-10, she said.

The Board is likely to hear from a divided community, no matter what the numbers say. A spokesman from the California Teachers Assn. told the Contra Costa Times that the union continues to oppose a waiver. “We’re concerned that the waiver process would replace one set of federal top-down mandates for another,” Mike Myslinski said.

But Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocating for minority students, called the waiver “an unprecedented opportunity to improve our education system to better serve all students.” And in an e-mail Wednesday, Rick Miller, Executive Director of the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), the nonprofit representing seven reform-minded school districts, again urged the state to seek the waiver and not wait for Congress to reauthorize NCLB,  formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. “While we can all agree that ESEA reauthorization would be preferable, districts cannot afford to wait for Congress to act. The waiver process offers a much needed flexibility from overly rigid NCLB requirements in exchange for doing work in which we’re already engaged,” Miller wrote. “We strongly hope the state will apply in order to give schools and districts throughout California the freedom to invest scarce education dollars where they are needed most – in the classroom.”

The main issue dividing CTA and Ed Trust-West is teacher evaluations. As a condition for receiving a waiver, the Obama administration is requiring that states adopt a teacher evaluation system that gives significant weight to student test scores, among other factors. Such a requirement isn’t in the current NCLB, although the Obama administration wants a revised law to include it. The latest draft out of the Senate, with some bipartisan support, incorporates it as well. California’s current law on teacher evaluations wouldn’t qualify for a waiver, and a proposed revision, AB 5, will likely face a contentious debate next year. Assuming a new mandate for stronger teacher evaluations passes, school districts and unions would have to then negotiate the specifics.

States that receive a waiver would be able to stop the clock on meeting the NCLB  requirement that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. No additional schools would be deemed failures and face sanctions. Obama is offering to let states flexibly spend NCLB money now used for tutoring and transporting students to non-failing schools in exchange for focusing attention on 15 percent of schools: the lowest-performing 5 percent, called priority schools, plus those where there are big achievement gaps – focus schools. For California, that might mean upwards of $100 million of existing federal Title I dollars to spend on these schools.

For an honest cost analysis, officials of the Department of Ed would have to take a hard look at the estimates made by their boss, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. His ballpark estimate of at least $1.8 billion more in annual expenses through the waiver process assumes that California would have to spend $2 million annually to turn around 915 schools  – a novel interpretation if not a worst-case misreading of the Obama administration’s waiver offer. If true, though, then clearly California and every state would be better off waiting for reauthorization of NCLB, whenever that happens.

Initial state applications for the waiver are due Nov. 14, with a second round due in mid-February.

*** Update: Education Week reported today that 37 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico filed an intent to pursue a waiver.

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