Published Online: August 16, 2013
Updated: August 27, 2013

Critics Blast Away at California Districts' Waiver

By awarding a No Child Left Behind Act waiver to eight California districts, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has embarked on an experiment that redefines the federal role in school accountability—and that is sparking criticism from across the political spectrum and questions about whether the new flexibility goes too far.

The first-of-its-kind waiver, good for one year, essentially allows the eight districts to set up their own accountability system outside of the state of California’s—and largely police themselves through their own board of directors.

The districts, known as CORE, for California Office to Reform Education, will operate under a new school rating system that will eventually count nonacademic factors, such as absentee rates and parent surveys, as 40 percent of a school’s grade. In the short term, those districts are frantically preparing for the start of the 2013-14 school year, which means making key decisions about NCLB-era practices, such as whether to keep providing tutoring and school choice to students in persistently low-performing schools.

Until now, Mr. Duncan has granted such flexibility only to states. By granting such a sweeping waiver to a group of districts, he rankled and even infuriated some education groups, including those he generally counts as supporters. Civil rights groups and advocates for disadvantaged students, such as the Education Trust, fear a separate accountability system within the same state will create uneven expectations for students at risk of academic failure.

State schools chiefs collectively oppose the waiver as “usurping” state power. State and local teachers’ unions in California objected to being left out of the waiver process. Many members of Congress, particularly Republicans, are irritated that Mr. Duncan has used his waiver authority to hand out a special waiver just for eight districts in one state.

Loosening the Reins

The U.S. Department of Education granted a first-of-its kind waiver to eight districts in California that are now free from many of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

New flexibility

Districts no longer have to:

• Provide tutoring and transportation for school choice as required under the NCLB law, freeing up about $150 million a year, collectively, among the districts.
• Use other prescribed interventions for persistently low-performing schools, such as school “restructuring.”
• Adhere to a goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Promises made

Waiver districts are committed to:

• Adopt new educator-evaluation guidelines, based in part on student growth, by Dec. 1, pilot the new systems in the 2014-15 school year, and implement them the following year.
• Create a school grading system based 60 percent on academic factors such as test scores and graduation rates, 20 percent on social-emotional factors such as the absentee rate, and 20 percent on culture and climate factors such as student and parent surveys.
• Implement fully the new Common Core State Standards in the 2013-14 school year.

By contrast, the list of fervent supporters is short, seemingly limited to the districts themselves—and U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee.

“Frankly, working with districts wasn’t an easy decision,” Mr. Duncan said in an Aug. 6 conference call the day the waivers were announced. He said his department isn’t doing it because it’s “simple,” but because it’s the “right thing to do.”

For the secretary, the calculation of risk vs. reward boiled down to simple numbers. About 1 million students will fall under the CORE waiver—more than the student enrollments of some entire states. (California’s total student population is about 6.2 million.)

“There is a compelling case to be made to treat these districts differently,” said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, who has been tracking the waivers.

But she added: “It’s a little bit of opening Pandora’s box. We don’t know what future secretaries of education are going to do with this authority. Does this set a precedent to do something even more controversial?”

Other critical questions persist: Will other districts seek similar relief? Will much change in the CORE districts in the short term? And how will the federal department manage oversight of those districts at a time when its portfolio includes other NCLB waivers for most of the states plus billions of dollars of competitive-grant programs?

Stretching the Fabric

Until now, states had been the only recipients of the broad NCLB waivers first announced by President Barack Obama in 2011—and only if they agreed to the strings attached, such as implementing teacher-evaluation systems linked to student test scores.

In exchange, those states were relieved of key requirements of the NCLB law, such as that schools bring all students to proficiency in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Now, the eight California districts, which include Los Angeles, Fresno, and Long Beach, will have that same flexibility.

California Office to Reform Education (CORE) Districts

Fresno—The 4th largest school district in California with 73,000 students. Located in the Central Valley, 25 percent of its students are English-language learners, and 83 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Long Beach—National winner of the Broad Prize for Urban Education, with an enrollment of 83,700. A neighbor of Los Angeles Unified, its enrollment includes 22 percent English-learners and 70 percent who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Los Angeles—Second largest district in the country with 640,000 students. Located in Southern California, one-quarter are English-learners, and 80 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price meals.

Oakland—Close to San Francisco, with an enrollment of 36,180. Thirty-two percent are English-learners, and 69 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price meals.

Sacramento—Located in the state capital with 47,900 students. Twenty-three percent are English-learners, and 71 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

San Francisco—Northern California district with 55,000 students. Twenty-nine percent are English-learners, and 63 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Sanger—A neighbor of Fresno in a very agricultural part of the state’s Central Valley. Total enrollment of 11,000. Twenty-one percent are English-learners, and 73 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Santa Ana—In Southern California’s Orange County, with 56,000 students. Fifty-one percent are English-learners, and 78 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch—the highest rates in those two categories among all the districts with the new waiver.

Neither Secretary Duncan nor groups that represent districts know of any other school districts that might be interested in a similar waiver. Mr. Duncan has said he would consider district waivers only in states that do not win their own state-level flexibility.

As of late last week, 40 states plus the District of Columbia had been granted NCLB waivers.

The CORE districts started pursuing their own waiver in earnest in January after federal officials rejected California’s application, in part because it didn’t meet the requirements for implementing a new teacher-evaluation system.

Many education policy experts sharply disagree about this district waiver’s effect on the traditional relationship between local districts, their states, and the federal government. Public schools are primarily a state responsibility, and are financed mostly by state tax dollars.

What’s more, the NCLB law mainly governs the relationship between the federal government and the states. The law is the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“For the secretary to unilaterally dispense with 30-plus years of state-led accountability is incredible,” said Andy Smarick, a partner for Bellwether Education Partners in Washington.

But others disagree.

“The approval is within his authority and does not undermine state authority in any meaningful way,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

For the group of California districts, the most important flexibility the waiver brings is financial. A waiver will free up about $150 million in federal funds a year among the districts—money that’s now locked up in providing interventions such as tutoring and school choice in schools that do not meet annual academic targets.

As a result, districts are already canceling many of their contracts with tutoring providers, but electing to keep school-choice-based transportation—at least for now.

Michael Hanson, the superintendent in the 73,000-student Fresno district, said that for teachers and school staff members, one of the biggest changes under the waiver will be the increased accountability for more students than was previously the case under the rules of the NCLB law. It will require greater attention to subgroups of students, including English-learners and minority students, even if their numbers aren’t that great.

Another major shift is that schools will be judged not only on achievement, but also on nonacademic factors, such as driving down absenteeism and suspension and expulsion rates, as well as how parents and students evaluate the culture and climate.

“Getting people to understand that a good school is not just a test score in English/language arts and math is going to be a huge shift,” Mr. Hanson said.

He expects the CORE districts to be a pilot for the rest of California, where the state department of education is also working on plans to broaden accountability to include nonacademic measures.

Implementation Hurdles

As the districts turn to implementing the waiver, one of their biggest challenges could be negotiating new teacher-evaluation systems that include student outcomes. That won’t be easy, given that all of the teachers’ union locals, as well as the California Teachers Association, expressed strong objections to the waiver.

In Sacramento, Superintendent Jonathan Raymond wrote to employees shortly after its waiver was announced that “there is no component of this waiver that supersedes our collective bargaining agreements. The waiver calls for districts to begin discussions.”

The president of the Sacramento teachers’ union, Nikki Milevsky, said district leaders never discussed any components of the waiver with the union despite the ground-shifting changes it will bring to classroom teachers who serve 47,900 students.

“It’s really a slap in the face to not be consulted and to not be part of such dramatic change,” said Ms. Milevsky. She pointed to common-core implementation and the state’s new accountability rules tied to changes in the student funding formula as already having major implications for teachers.

“Those are huge changes that can create a lot of good for students,” she said, “and yet now we’re going to be distracted by chasing flexibility for money that’s already there.”

Oversight Issues

Granting such a waiver is a risky move for a slimmed-down U.S. Department of Education staff already managing an enormous portfolio of grants and programs.

Related Blog

To that end, during back-and-forth negotiations between federal and district officials, the Education Department asked the CORE districts to devise a mechanism to ensure oversight, since the state of California—which would normally fill that role—is out of the picture in the new waiver.

The districts created an oversight panel of 14 individuals who represent a range of education organizations and interest groups. The panel will meet twice a year, said Rick Miller, CORE's executive director, and its meetings will be largely open to the public.

Panelists will review districts’ self-evaluations, as well as reviews conducted by peer districts. If a district fails to comply with the waiver’s terms, the panel can recommend to the federal Education Department that it be revoked.

The waiver plan, as originally submitted, had no such oversight.

“Some of the feedback we got was that it would be like the fox guarding the hen house,” CORE's Mr. Miller said.

Vol. 33, Issue 01

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