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Arne Duncan Revokes Washington State’s NCLB Waiver

By Alyson Klein — April 24, 2014 7 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan yanked Washington state’s waiver Thursday, making the Evergreen State the first to lose the Obama administration’s flexibility from many of the mandates of the outdated No Child Left Behind Act.

But, in an important twist, the state will not be returning to an accountability system that’s exactly like the one it had under NCLB, particularly when it comes to intervening in low-performing schools. Specifically, like other waiver states, Washington will still single out “priority” and “focus” schools this spring, even as it largely reverts back to NCLB-style interventions, such as tutoring, sources say.

Sound complicated? Accountability experts think so too. “I think it’s going to be really confusing for the public and for parents to understand this,” said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation. “There are going to be a lot of questions about how this affects local districts and schools.”

The decision to pull the waiver comes as no surprise to Washington state officials, who have said for weeks that they fully expected to lose the flexibility. The issue? Washington state doesn’t require state test scores to be integrated into teacher evaluations—instead districts can choose either state or local assessments.

How Will This Work?

The move means that, for starters, districts in Washington state will lose control over nearly $40 million in federal money. That’s because schools will now have to begin setting aside that money for NCLB-prescribed remedies for low-performing schools, such as tutoring and school choice. The state will also have to return to the NCLB law’s much-maligned yardstick, gauging schools based on “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP.

In fact, in the fall, Washington state will need to make AYP determinations based on the goals for the 2014-15 school year. As anyone who has ever read the NCLB law knows, that means 100 percent of students are supposed to be proficient. From there it gets tricky. To decide where schools fall on the improvement timetable, the state will have to determine what the school’s status would have been prior to the waiver. Under this retroactive labeling scheme, a school that would plan for “restructuring” (the most dramatic NCLB intervention) might have to implement those interventions next year, sources say.

And there’s another very particular wrinkle here because of Washington’s unique ex-waiver status. Like other waiver states, Washington will continue to identify schools that are foundering the most using a system that looks more like the waiver rules than NCLB. The Evergreen State is still choosing to pinpoint “priority” schools (the lowest performers) and “focus” schools (other struggling schools.) The result will be an accountability system that is a mishmash of NCLB and the state’s waiver system, potentially resulting in some muddled messages for low-performing schools.

“I appreciate that transitioning back to NCLB is not desirable, and will not be simple,” Duncan wrote in a letter explaining his decision.

The department also made it clear to Washington officials that the state could be eligible for a new waiver if it is able to make the necessary changes to its teacher evaluation system.

State Politics

But that may not be politically possible. The state’s governor, Jay Inslee, a Democrat, and schools chief, Randy Dorn, had tried to save the waiver, but were unsuccessful. Despite heavy lobbying from both leaders, Washington state lawmakers were unable to pass a bill earlier this spring that might have appeased the Education Department by calling for state tests to be a factor in evaluations by the 2017-18 school year.

Inslee laid blame for the waiver’s revocation at the legislature’s feet, and warned that the loss of funding flexibility could lead to layoffs. “The loss of this waiver could have been avoided if the state legislature had acted last session,” he said in a statement. “The waiver provided districts flexibility to use nearly $40 million in federal funds to support struggling students. Loss of that funding means those districts now face potential impacts that could include laying off some of Washington’s tremendous teachers or cutting back on programs that serve at-risk students.”

But it’s uncertain if the fix would have even saved the waiver—the administration has required every other state to get its teacher-evaluation system fully in place by the 2016-17 school year, at the latest. (Notably, the Obama administration will leave office in the middle of that school year, and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen with the waiver scheme under a new administration.)

And for its part, the Washington Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, stands by its decision to lobby against the change.

“WEA believes the Washington Legislature did the right thing last session when it rejected Duncan’s inflexible, and bureaucratic demands,” the union’s president, Kim Mead wrote in a statement. “Republicans and Democrats alike saw that Duncan’s failed federal mandates would have done nothing to help Washington’s kids or their teachers, but rather would impose broken federal law on our students.”

Federal Politics

Although Washington state’s waiver was the first to go, it may not be the last. The Education Department has awarded waivers to 43 states and the District of Columbia so far. And three other states have had their waivers put on “high risk” status: Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon. Like Washington, all three are hung up on the issue of teacher evaluation.

Last year, Duncan told the Council of Chief State School Officers that he was likely to “revoke a waiver or two or three.” Washington state’s new accountability regime could be a harbinger of what other high-risk states have in store, should they lose their waivers. And it could also have implications for any states that elect not to extend their waivers.

Kate Tromble, the director of government relations for the Education Trust, said revoking the waiver was the right thing to do.

“The department needed to set a bottom line” to make it clear to states that they are serious about waiver enforcement, she said. “It is unfortunate because Washington students are going to bear the burden of the failure of adults” in the state.

Tromble is worried, however, about what may happen when all students in the state take the rigorous Smarter Balanced Assessment next school year. The test may prove to be a lot tougher than Washington’s current exam—and all schools may be labeled as “failing” to make progress.

“It’s important that we hold schools accountable, but schools need to feel the system is legitimate,” she said. The impetus is on Washington state leaders to find a way to work through this issue, she said.

So far, the department has thrown the hammer down on states that didn’t follow through on their plans when it comes to teacher evaluation.

But it’s been another story when it comes to another requirement for waiver states: using assessments aligned to college- and career-ready standards, Hyslop noted.

States, including Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Utah, said they planned to use participation in either PARCC or Smarter Balanced—the two consortia developing tests that align with the common-core standards—to fulfill that requirement. And then they ditched the consortia. The U.S. Department asked for their Plan B, but so far hasn’t put any of those states on high-risk status.

Coming down hard on those states may carry more political risk than getting tough on teacher evaluation, Hyslop said, given the pushback around the country on the Obama administration’s championship of common core.

“Teacher evaluation is a very politically charged issue, but common core is even more so,” she said. “Stepping in and really getting tough on assessments I think would have a lot more political ramifications.”

Will the waiver revocation prod Congress to actually act on renewing the NCLB law? Maybe. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who may be next in line to head up the Senate education committee, said in a statement that the waiver’s revocation points to the need to revise the ESEA law. “What’s most important now is that we all do our part to rectify this situation,” said Murray, who reportedly spoke to the department on her home state’s behalf. “I have made clear time and again that I will work with anyone who is willing to reauthorize ESEA, but to date, making progress on updating this law has been an unnecessarily partisan fight.”