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Will Sen. Murray Be Able to Help Washington Keep Its NCLB Waiver?

By Alyson Klein — February 21, 2014 3 min read
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Washington State is in the unfortunate position of being just one of four that had its NCLB waiver put on “high risk” status by the U.S. Department of Education. The Evergreen State has run into trouble with the teacher-evaluation component of the waivers, which has been the trickiest part for those states seeking the flexilibility under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But Washington is in the fortunate position of having a very powerful advocate on its team: Sen. Patty Murray. She chairs the Senate Budget Committee, is trusted by Senate leadership, and is a senior member of the panels that oversee education policy and spending. What’s more, she could be in line to chair one or both of those committees in the next Congress, after Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, retires.

So will Murray intervene with the Education Department on her state’s behalf? She is trying her best to make the state’s case to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, but it seems to be far from a slam dunk.

“Although Senator Murray can’t offer any blanket assurances that the waiver will be granted, she is committed to continuing to advocate for its extension because she understands the impact losing it would have on schools,” Matt McAlvanah, a spokesman for Murray, wrote in an email. “Additionally, she is focused on working with her colleagues in Congress to fully reauthorize ESEA with the input of Washington state stakeholders.”

The situation is tricky. Right now, Washington State’s law essentially says districts “may” use student test scores from state tests as a major factor in teacher evaluations. They could also use scores on locally-developed exams. In order to get and keep an ESEA waiver, which gives states relief from some of the most onerous requirements of the ESEA law—Washington must make state assesment scores a factor. No maybes about it.

Teachers’ unions and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are urging Murray to act, according to this editorial in The News Tribune, which seeks to encourage lawmakers to just pass a bill that would require test scores as part of the evaluation process already. (The paper’s point isn’t neccessarily all about caving to the feds. The editorial board just seems to think this is the right thing to do, policywise.)

The salient paragraph: “The Washington Education Association and the Democrats it intimidates claim the problem can be fixed with a little pressure on U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Sen. Patty Murray will say the word, supposedly, and Duncan will cave on the demand for statewide measures.”

But the editorial goes on to argue that Duncan may not go along with the program. “The Education Department hasn’t been caving on similar appeals from other accountability-averse states,” it says. (The writers may be thinking of the situation in Arizona, as well as languishing waiver bids from Iowa and Illinois, who are also stuck on, you guessed it, teacher evaluation.)

It’s also true, however, that Duncan may need Murray on his side if the department wants to advance its legislative agenda, which includes shared goals, such as a major federal expansion of early childhood education programs. After all, next year, Murray could very well be overseeing the Senate subcommittee that deals with education spending, putting her in the position of deciding whether the department gets more money for another round of Race to the Top ... or not.

Another key point: If ESEA reauthorization isn’t finished in this Congress (which it probably won’t be) and Murray becomes the chairman of the committee, the situation back in her home state could help inform her policy perceptions. Would she want an ESEA bill that required states to adopt teacher evaluation systems based on student outcomes when her own state is in semi-rebellion mode?

Washington’s waiver situation is definitely one to watch.

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