Federal

Calif. Districts’ Waiver Bid Now in Review Phase

By Michele McNeil — April 02, 2013 5 min read

The U.S. Department of Education and a band of outside peer reviewers are now weighing the details of a precedent-setting waiver application from nine districts in California that want flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act even though their state’s bid for a waiver was unsuccessful.

If approved, it would be the first time the federal department has granted such sweeping flexibility to individual districts.

Until now, states have 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, states get out from under 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.

The waiver application for the group of districts known as CORE, for California Office to Reform Education, was buoyed—somewhat—late last month by a letter of tepid support from California state education officials.

Measured ‘Enthusiasm’

The letter to federal education officials, signed by state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson and state school board President Michael W. Kirst, indicated that members of the California board of education have “expressed enthusiasm” for what the letter called an “innovative” waiver.

Federal Flexibility: A Timeline

Sept. 23, 2011
President Barack Obama announces plans to grant waivers to give states flexibility under the NCLB law.

Feb. 9, 2012
Ten states are awarded waivers in the first round.

March 19, 2012
Federal officials first raise publicly the possibility of district-level waivers in states that do not win one on their own.

June 15, 2012
California submits its waiver request, which does not comply with all the federal requirements.

Oct. 17, 2012
Idaho becomes the 35th and latest state, including the District of Columbia, to win waiver approval.

Jan. 14, 2013
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan denies California’s request, saying it doesn’t meet his “high bar.”

Feb. 28, 2013
Nine California districts, known as CORE, submit their own waiver application to the Department of Education.

March 22, 2013
The California state board of education sends a letter to federal officials expressing “enthusiasm” for the district waiver.

March 25, 2013
The federal Education Department turns the CORE waiver over to outside peer reviewers for judging.

But Mr. Torlakson and Mr. Kirst also outlined their reservations about how such a waiver would work, including the role of the state in monitoring the nine districts, whether other districts would be able to join in, and the process used by federal officials to approve the request.

Armed with the state’s official input, the federal Education Department last week was in the process of turning over the application to a team of six peer reviewers, as the department has done with state waiver applications, to help sort those issues out.

Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for the department, said the peer reviewers would be applying the same principles they did in judging the state waivers. For instance, districts must implement college- and career-readiness standards and differentiated accountability.

But, he said, the department is also giving those peer reviewers additional guidance on how to judge a request that looks a lot different from a state application. He declined to give details.

The department aims to have an answer for the CORE districts by the end of this school year.

Potential Pilot

Federal officials have said they are open to district-level flexibility only in states that do not have a state-level NCLB waiver. So far, 34 states plus the District of Columbia have earned waivers. A dozen more are in the pipeline, including Pennsylvania and Texas.

California and Iowa had their applications rejected over their teacher-evaluation systems. Vermont and North Dakota withdrew their applications; Montana and Nebraska have not applied.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems supportive of the CORE districts and their proposal. In a spirited back-and-forth at a meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers last month, he pointed out that the nine districts have more students than some entire states. He’s labeled the proposal a potential pilot program that could be expanded to other districts.

Peer Review Significant

The department’s decision to send the application for peer review by outside judges is significant. For California’s state waiver application, the federal Education Department skipped the peer-review step and rejected the waiver outright for failing to comply with requirements on teacher evaluations.

The California CORE districts, which include Los Angeles and Long Beach, aren’t following the standard format federal officials set up, in part because the waivers are geared to states. In fact, the districts are proposing ideas that are radically different from the provisions of the NCLB law, such as that only the test scores from the last grade in any school be used for accountability purposes.

And on a more fundamental level, a successful CORE waiver application would mean nine large California districts that together educate 1 million students would create their own accountability system that’s different from the state’s.

“I can’t imagine the complications of this,” said Kerri Briggs, a former state superintendent in the District of Columbia and now the director of education reform for the Dallas-based George W. Bush Institute. She was a former top Education Department official in President Bush’s administration.

Ms. Briggs pointed out one of the hallmarks of the NCLB law: It created an accountability and testing system that applied to every student in every district in every state. If the CORE waiver gets the green light, she said, questions of equity arise.

“It’s the precedent of having different standards for different kids within a state,” she said.

Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, agreed. A “strong state accountability system is so important to addressing equity issues in districts,” she said. Letting districts run the show is like “giving the fox the keys to the henhouse,” argued Ms. Haycock, whose Washington research organization advocates on behalf of disadvantaged students.

The CORE superintendents acknowledge their plan would be an important shift in accountability.

“It’s a transformation about where we locate compliance,” said Tony Smith, the superintendent of the Oakland Unified system, one of the CORE districts, during a conference call in February announcing the plan. It’s about being “really clear and public about the collective responsibility across these systems to serve each and every child well.”

Carissa Miller, the deputy executive director of the CCSSO, said the state chiefs don’t downplay the significance of helping 1 million students. But, she said, “we want states to be moving this effort forward.”

Given that Congress is not close to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the NCLB law, a district-level waiver would be a good choice for some districts, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators, in Alexandria, Va.

“I don’t think all districts will pursue the waivers. Some won’t have the capacity; some are in the wrong state; some are opposed to the process. I do think there will be districts ready to go, though,” Ms. Ellerson said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2013 edition of Education Week as Calif. Districts’ Waiver Bid Heads to Review Phase

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