Calif. Aims to Go Own Way in NCLB Waiver Bid

By Alyson Klein — May 15, 2012 3 min read
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California is among a handful of states that haven’t taken the U.S. Department of Education up on its offer of wiggle room on the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.

But that doesn’t mean the state wants to stick with the NCLB law as it is.

Instead, the state board of education last week unanimously approved a waiver request that doesn’t follow the model laid out last fall by the Education Department. That federal model requires states to adopt particular policies—such as standards for college and career readiness—in order to move away from the accountability system at the heart of the decade-old law, the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The California request, which also has the backing of Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction, skips a major component of the Education Department’s principles: teacher evaluation.

Under the federal waiver model, states must come up with a definition of teacher effectiveness that relies in part on student outcomes, and use that information to make personnel decisions. But cash-strapped California just doesn’t have the money to help school districts cover the cost of a new evaluation plan, as state law requires, said Michael W. Kirst, the president of the California school board, who was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat.

“We’re saying we just can’t pay for it,” Mr. Kirst said.

And, in Mr. Kirst’s view, the state’s waiver request is more consistent with what’s actually in the NCLB law than what the Obama administration is proposing. “We do not see anything in the law about state mandates for teacher evaluation,” he said.

The powerful California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, has not been a fan of the administration’s approach.

“The administration’s waiver-proposal process swaps one federal, top-down mandate for another,” CTA spokesman Mike Myslinski said in an email.

Flock of Applications

So far, 11 states have received waivers from the department and another 26, plus the District of Columbia, have applied. Like those other states, California is seeking to get out from under the use of adequate yearly progress, the unpopular yardstick at the center of the NCLB law. It also wants to quit having to set aside money for school choice, tutoring, and professional development.

On accountability, California wants to go back to a version of its pre-NCLB accountability system. It has proposed changes to that system, including in the area of school improvement.

The Education Department has presented its policies as an all-or-nothing proposition—a state must sign on to every component of the federal plan to get a waiver. Liz Utrup, a spokeswoman for the department, said the state’s application had not yet been received as of late last week.

California’s plan could put the department in a tough position, said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank in Washington, who served in the department under President George W. Bush.

“If [Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan rejects this waiver, he’s going to have a difficult election-year problem on his hands,” Mr. Petrilli said. “This could be used as an example of federal overreach.”

If the department accepts the plan, he said, other states could say “forget your conditions. I want the kind of waiver California has.”

But James W. Kohlmoos, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education in Arlington, Va., doesn’t expect politics to factor into the department’s decision.

“I believe [the department] will keep its focus on the merits of the request,” he said, “and will not take into consideration the politics of the situation.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2012 edition of Education Week as California Hopes to Go Its Own Way on NCLB Waiver


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