Districts want shot at NCLB waiverDuncan still weighing options, obstacles
State chiefs of education apparently let U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have it over the idea of letting individual districts apply directly to him for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.
Their message to him, during an hour-long face to face on Monday, was, according to Education Week: Stay off our turf; we run districts.
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has made it clear he’s no fan of Duncan’s waiver offer, which he considers expensive and intrusive, a swapping of one bad set of rules for another; California may not seek a waiver, not under Duncan’s conditions.
But Torlakson, while in Washington, didn’t attend the sit-down with Duncan, and his spokesman, Paul Hefner, said that Torlakson has no objection, in principle, to California districts applying for an NCLB waiver directly from the feds. But he does foresee practical problems that would have to be thought through – if Duncan actually moves ahead with district waivers.
That’s fine with Rick Miller, a former deputy state superintendent and now executive director of the California Office to Reform Education, the seven districts that led the state’s Race to the Top effort. CORE districts (now eight, with the new addition of Oakland Unified) want a waiver, believe they’d qualify for one, and will pursue it as soon as Duncan makes up his mind. They want relief next year from NCLB’s sanctions and the chance to spend more Title I dollars as they choose.
EdWeek quoted Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, as saying his organization opposes district waivers unless they’re done in cooperation with a state. Miller says the districts want Torlakson’s support; the CORE districts don’t see the waiver as an end-run around the state.
Miller said he spoke at length this week about the district waiver possibility with State Board President Michael Kirst and will talk with Torlakson, too. The districts will work through the potential roadblocks.
In an email, Hefner listed a few of them:
- Who would be responsible for monitoring compliance with requirements associated with the waiver? The state? The federal government? How would those costs be absorbed?
- If a district was required as part of a waiver to adopt a new or modified accountability system, would the state be obligated to modify its data system to accommodate those changes? Who pays for that? Who sets the timetable for system modifications?
Miller agrees that an alternative system of compliance has to be worked out. The cash-strapped state Department of Education would not be involved at all in the district waiver, and the feds won’t have the resources to monitor individual districts – potentially dozens of them, if not more. Critics will charge that direct federal oversight would violate states’ rights, even though, Miller says, NCLB does have provisions for district waivers.
Miller suggests that one option might be peer monitoring, with districts holding one another to account.
The CORE districts (Fresno, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Sanger, San Francisco, Sacramento City, Clovis, and Oakland, all unified districts), Miller says, agree on the requirements that Duncan has set for a waiver – creating data systems, developing Common Core standards and alternative teacher and principal evaluations, identifying and improving the lowest performing schools – in exchange for suspending NCLB’s sanctions. And they want to move ahead as soon as Duncan decides whether and how to grant district waivers.
Earlier this month, Torlakson proposed that the state seek a California waiver on its own terms, ignoring Duncan’s conditions. Recognizing that Duncan would likely reject it, the State Board took no action. Torlakson agreed to seek other ideas, with the possibility of resubmitting it to the Board in June.