First round of NCLB waiversTorlakson sees constraints not flexibility
In early March, the State Board of Education will decide whether California will apply for the waiver from the No Child Left Behind law that the federal Department of Education awarded to an initial 10 states on Thursday. While not ruling out that possibility, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson hinted strongly Thursday that he remains inclined not to go there.
“California has rejected No Child Left Behind as a broken system that has not worked for our schools or our students,” Torlakson said in a statement. “The law’s failures should prompt a thorough reassessment of the federal role in education, not merely the substitution of one set of inflexible requirements for another.”
Inflexibility must be in the eye of the beholder. In announcing the initial waivers yesterday, President Obama emphasized that flexibility is what makes his offer for a waiver attractive. “So when it comes to fixing what’s wrong with No Child Left Behind, we’ve offered every state the same deal. We’ve said, if you’re willing to set higher, more honest standards than the ones that were set by No Child Left Behind, then we’re going to give you the flexibility to meet those standards. We want high standards, and we’ll give you flexibility in return.”
Eleven states applied for the NCLB waiver in the first round last fall; all but New Mexico received it, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said yesterday that its approval was likely. Three other states – Florida, Oklahoma, and Georgia – have received conditional approval, pending actions by their state legislatures or governing boards. The other seven states with waivers are Massachusetts, Tennessee, New Jersey, Indiana, Minnesota, Kentucky, and Colorado. Twenty-eight additional states and Washington, D.C., have indicated that they intend to seek a waiver by the next deadline, at the end of this month. The deadline for the next and final round hasn’t been set but is expected to be in June.
Congress, President at loggerheads over NCLB renewal
Obama has said he is moving ahead with a waiver because Congress has failed for five years to fix NCLB; in a presidential election year, it’s also unlikely to. In exchange for committing to action in three broad areas, the administration would release states from NCLB’s primary requirement – that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014 – along with the harsh penalties that schools have faced for failing to meet annual targets toward that goal. Districts would be free to spend Title I money that would have gone toward NCLB compliance on their own plans for student achievement. That’s one reason why a number of superintendents, including those from Los Angeles Unified, Long Beach, Sacramento City, and Fresno, have written the State Board or testified in support of a waiver. Another reason is that the waiver would free them from a rigid accountability system that will soon classify nearly all Title I schools as academic failures, even those making significant progress by the state’s own metric, the Academic Performance Index.
But Torlakson and Gov. Jerry Brown argue that broke California has no money to implement new commitments to reforms, especially on the three-year deadline that a waiver would demand. And Brown, like Torlakson, has been criticizing federal overreach in areas they – along with Republicans in Congress – say should best be left to the states.
In exchange for the waiver, states would have to:
- Commit to establishing career and college readiness standards. California has done this by adopting the Common Core standards. Implementing them would require training teachers and buying textbooks and materials. The State Department of Education projects the cost at more than $800 million, although federal officials have indicated they’d work with California on a realistic timetable.
- Create and implement plans for turning around the worst-performing 5 percent of Title I schools and an additional 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps, while recognizing top-performing schools, too. Here again, the State Department of Education estimates high – about $400 million – based on existing federal turnaround models and $235 million in paying teachers for collaboration time. The federal guidelines suggest no dollar figures, and California could present a less costly approach.
- Put in place a system to evaluate every teacher and principal using multiple yardsticks that include a “significant” use of test scores. This requirement is most troubling to Brown and the State Board as well as critics who say Obama is overstepping his authority by exceeding the scope of NCLB. The much maligned and inadequate Stull Act, the 40-year-old state law governing teacher evaluations, won’t meet Obama’s criteria for evaluations. While there appears to be universal agreement that teacher evaluations should be strengthened, there’s no consensus as to how, so it’s unclear whether the Legislature will pass an alternative this year.
Although most districts evaluate principals regularly, there is no state requirement, so this would be a new state mandate. (Correction: The Stull Act applies to all “certificated” employees, so principals are covered by current law. Note to John Mockler: You were right.)
As for the cost, Torlakson’s Ed Dept. pegs the net cost of a new evaluation system at $639 per teacher, although, here again, that figure, minus a law, is conjecture – and probably high. If all of the state’s 305,000 teachers are evaluated yearly, that’s nearly $200 million. An NCLB waiver would apply to every school, not only those receiving Title I dollars.
By contrast, Democratic Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes, sponsor of AB 5, the primary teacher evaluation bill now in play, puts the total cost at closer to $30 million to $35 million ; subtract the current $19 million statewide cost of the Stull Act, and the net cost to the state would be $16 million, an estimate that may be too low and would depend on how often teachers are evaluated, whether peer review is included in the process and whether there is follow-up professional development.
Cost aside, neither Brown nor Torlakson may want a huge battle over teacher evaluations – and the use of test scores – in an election year, with the governor depending on California Teachers Assn. money and support for his tax initiative in November.
Election-year calculus infuses the debate over the waiver in Washington, too. At some point, Congress must reauthorize the next-generation NCLB that will supersede conditions of a waiver. Some urge caution in seeking something that could vanish.
Others argue that the state should go for a waiver now, while there is a window of opportunity to push a California-centric version of school reform. Obama and Duncan might not be in office after November anyway to force the state to keep its promises, the argument goes.
What the State Board will argue won’t be known for a few more weeks.