Published Online: March 3, 2014
Published in Print: March 5, 2014, as Waiver Pitfalls on Full Display in Wash. State

Washington State Walks Tightrope in Bid to Keep Waiver

Washington state's struggle to hang on to newfound flexibility on the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act is just the latest example of the tightrope created by the Obama administration's waivers, particularly when it comes to the politically fraught issue of teacher evaluation.

To keep their leeway on accountability for students and schools—and control over millions of federal dollars—states must draft proposals on teacher evaluation and other areas that will pass federal muster while satisfying diverse constituencies back home.

The Evergreen State is one of four that have been put on notice by the U.S. Department of Education that their waivers could be yanked for failure to adhere to strict federal guidelines in a key area of accountability. If that happens, districts could lose control of nearly $40 million in federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students.

RANDY DORN, the Washington state schools chief, has been working closely with the governor on the waiver issue.
—Ted S. Warren/AP-File

In Washington's case, lawmakers must revise the state's teacher-evaluation system, which currently leaves it up to districts to determine whether teachers will be judged using state or local tests of student performance. That isn't consistent with the Education Department's waivers, which insist on state assessments only.

Randy Dorn, the state superintendent of public instruction, said he's made it clear to lawmakers that the federal Education Department isn't going to allow Washington to keep its current system in place—even though some in the state legislature thought that powerful Democrats, including Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, might hold sway with the Obama administration.

"I said, 'Are you guys crazy? This isn't just about Washington [state],' " recalled Mr. Dorn, an elected, nonpartisan chief. "This is about seven or eight states that haven't done anything" on areas like teacher evaluation, he said, and want to get out from under what they see as the draconian requirements of the NCLB law, which hasn't gotten an update since 2002.

GOV. JAY INSLEE of Washington, a Democrat, has wrestled with state lawmakers to come up with a teacher-evaluation plan that would pass federal muster.
—Elaine Thompson/AP

So far, 42 states and the District of Columbia have been granted waivers from many of the requirements of the federal law, provided they embrace the Obama administration's education redesign priorities, including establishing teacher-evaluation systems that take into account student performance on state tests.

That component has been, by far, the trickiest piece of the waiver puzzle. The three other states where waivers are in jeopardy—Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon—are all wrestling with crafting teacher-evaluation systems that meet federal expectations. Languishing waiver bids from Illinois and Iowa are caught up in the same issue.

Uphill Battle

Finding the right balance on evaluation could also be an uphill battle in Washington state. It's far from certain whether the most recent draft proposal sketched out by Gov. Inslee and Mr. Dorn—and pending as of press time last week—will clear the federal bar.

The pair last month floated a broad proposal that would allow districts to use their own tests for evaluation purposes past the end of the Obama administration, when the current system of NCLB waivers may well be a thing of the past.

"I think that the leverage the department holds with the waivers is on a ticking clock in any case," said Sandi Jacobs, the vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. that generally supports the use of state test data in teacher evaluations. The friction in Washington state and elsewhere seems to indicate that Obama administration officials "are going to ride that clock out," she added.

But it remains to be seen whether a strong federal hand now will ultimately lead to strong evaluation systems down the road, Ms. Jacobs said.

"Half-hearted implementation that fulfills a waiver promise is going to be of questionable value," she said.

Opposition on All Sides

Washington got its waiver conditionally approved in July 2012, in part due to its ability to rework its law governing teacher evaluation.

But the Education Department placed Washington's waiver on "high-risk status" in August and made it clear that districts could lose authority over nearly $40 million in Title I funds. Still, a bill that would require state assessments to be used in evaluations went down to defeat in the GOP-controlled state Senate last month.

Opponents of the measure, which was sponsored by state Sen. Steve Litzow, a Republican, included Democrats closely aligned with the state's teachers' unions, as well as GOP lawmakers who felt that the federal government was exercising too much say over a state matter.

After consulting with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and state legislative leaders, Gov. Inslee and Mr. Dorn last week put forth the outlines of a plan that would allow the state to begin using state assessments to inform teacher evaluations in the 2017-18 school year.

In the interim, districts would still have to administer state tests, but could opt to use local ones to determine teacher performance, said Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the schools superintendent's office.

The proposal, floated on the governor's website Feb. 25, was still being hammered out with legislative leaders at the end of last week.

The Washington Education Association, a major player in defeating Mr. Litzow's measure, had already raised its eyebrows over the draft plan.

"We would still oppose mandating that state tests be used as part of teacher evaluation," said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the 83,000-member National Education Association affiliate. "That's still a sticking point. … We're interested in what's good for teachers and kids in Washington state, not necessarily in Washington, D.C."

Related Blog

But Mr. Litzow, the chairman of the Senate education committee, argues that using state test scores as a component of evaluations—which makes for easier comparisons among districts—is good policy, whether the idea comes from the federal government or not. And he thinks the Education Department is right to exert some control over state policy.

"Arne Duncan is actually very serious about making sure that we have a fair and accurate evaluation system," he said. "We're sort of amazed that Democrats in the Senate lined up against this."

Federal Hurdles?

Even if the draft proposal makes it through the state legislature by the end of the session on March 13,it's unclear if it will win federal approval. The state appears to be seeking a first-of-its kind waiver—asking for unprecedented leeway on not just the timeline for implementing its teacher-evaluation system, but on the type of assessments used.

Waiver states were initially supposed to fully implement their teacher-evaluation systems—meaning use them for personnel decisions—by the 2015-16 school year. The Obama administration has allowed states to apply for an extension, to the 2016-17 school year. But the flexibility so far has only applied to whether the evaluations are factored into hiring, firing, and tenure—not to whether the state gauges teacher performance using local or state tests.

Vol. 33, Issue 23, Pages 1,19

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