Teaching Profession Opinion

Alice Mercer: California Districts Get NCLB Waiver Despite Union Objections

By Anthony Cody — August 12, 2013 7 min read
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Guest post by Alice Mercer.

Discussions about education policy are often based on some dangerous and deceptive assumptions. Some examples are; tests measure whether student learning has occurred, education is the gateway to the middle-class, and student test scores can be used to measure teacher effectiveness. Added to this list is a new misunderstanding, what could be wrong with getting out from under NCLB mandates? Here is a story about what happens when those who would destroy public education control the message and what you need to know to tell truth to power about these divisive waivers.

Last week, the US Department of Education announced that it had approved a waiver to CORE, a consortium of districts in California.

Who is CORE and why are these consortia not good for public education?

CORE, the California Office to Reform Education, is a district consortium, a new type of entity created by the U.S. Department of Education when they created district level grants for Race to the Top (see page 5). CORE is a separate, eligible legal entity, that could apply for the grant on its own behalf. In doing this, the Department of Education has created a new educational legal entity, outside of states’ systems of districts, etc. The big concerns are that the consortium does not answer to anyone but the member districts, and districts in regards to grants and agreements, answer to the consortium. The Federal government has carved away any state role in administering these programs, and this has been done deliberately as a way to cut side deals with districts in states like California, who refuse to “play” with the Department of Education.

If the structure of the consortium is troubling, some of the characters involved in this one are even more disturbing. Rick Miller is the executive director of CORE. Miller is a business partner in Capitol Impact LLC, which designs and promotes public ed reform policies. In this capacity, Miller is also on the Board of Directors of Parent Revolution. The superintendents include a number of Broad Academy grads, such as my own in Sacramento, Jonathan Raymond.

The strange path of this waiver through Sacramento City Unified School District

The document trail for the CORE application from Sacramento City Unified (starting at around page 323) is bizarre, to say the least. Listed as proof of parent and community engagement are articles about the proposed application in the local paper. The record of the meetings confirms reports I’ve had from one party involved in this process. These meetings were not about engaging the public, or bringing them in as partners, but dog-and-pony show presentations, with some answering of a few questions. There are no letters of support from these groups, and even the school board did not vote on it, saying that was not necessary until they had an approved application. Instead of treating this like what it was, a significant deviation from existing district policy on issues ranging from school accountability to teacher evaluation, they were treating it like a minor grant that they would rubber stamp after it was applied for and approved.

Another interesting character can be found in the documents. Dr. Ed Mansala was listed throughout as the district representative at these meeting. At the same time he was holding these forums, the district was voting on closing schools in some of our poorest neighborhoods, with little notice and few meetings. These were closings based on a list that Dr. Mansala had created through a process that had little resemblance to procedures that followed state guidelines used in prior years. It did include many terms found in the Broad book of school closings, like “capacity” and “right-sizing”. Dr. Mansala came to our district from St. Hope, the umbrella organization for Mayor Kevin Johnson’s charter schools, and one-time employer of Michelle Rhee (now the mayor’s wife). I don’t think that requires much more elaboration.

At this point, CORE had set the message, which was being repeated in local media (page 343), and would be again when this application was approved. The message was, “this will get rid of NCLB.” This came with the assumption that no-one could possibly object to that, and didn’t say what was agreed to in exchange for this. In #5 on page 347 of the application you can see Trustee Cuneo (who was the school board president at that time) addressing a concern the teacher association president had expressed about teacher evaluations. He says, “However, the proposed waiver does not specifically dictate what evaluation systems and instruments individual districts must use.” This is not accurate, since it does specify that you pick from two models, and is pretty specific about what they do: “Participating LEAs will choose between a “trigger” system of teacher and principal evaluation and one that bases the evaluations significantly (at least 20% of the overall performance rating) on a calculation of student growth.” (page 167 of the application).

The application gets submitted, over the objections of the state Governor and Superintendent of Instruction, and every single teachers union involved.

Both of these parties, the state elected officials and the union agreed that switching teacher evaluations to a new system (either a growth/VAM, or comparison model) was not appropriate for a number of reasons, most of which are that student test scores are too removed from what teachers do to be used to judge them. Mixed in with this are concerns about implementing a system as we are switching assessments to match new Common Core standards. Page 168 of the application pretty much recognizes this glaring mismatch, and gives another school year to implement the evaluation systems. This will be 2014-15, the first year implementing Common Core assessments statewide. We’ve seen what happens in the first year of these tests, and it’s not pretty.

The CORE consortium has always represented an incursion into state sovereignty in school oversight. This criticism has gone across the political spectrum of school chiefs nationally (note Supt. Luna’s comments), and includes California State Superintendent Torlakson. The questions about the oversight panel in this waiver are bringing these criticisms to reality.


And, as the media campaign rolls on, the application is approved. Unions continue to voice concerns, but some otherwise thoughtful folks don’t get it.

What are the lessons from this?

When you are in a bad situation, not all solutions to the problem are equal. These waivers are akin to having one hand cuffed, and opting to saw off your arm to get yourself free when all you needed to do was find a key. Both options will “set you free” but one will cost an arm (and likely a leg).

When the public is given an overly simplified version of the stakes, they need to hear from educators, in a way that is comprehensible, what’s really going on. We are now behind the proverbial eight ball. To turn this around we will need your help getting word out to fellow teachers, and just as importantly, let your parents know that waivers have strings that will hurt their schools, their children, and their community.

What do you think about the way the federal Department of Education is behaving in regards to these districts? Is relief from some aspects of NCLB worth the changes being made to teacher evaluations?

To let Governor Jerry Brown know what you think, you can write to him here:
Governor Jerry Brown
c/o State Capitol, Ste 1173
Sacramento, CA
Phone him at (916) 445-2841
Fax him at (916) 558-3160
Tweet him at @JerryBrownGov

To let State Superintendent Tom Torlakson know, you can:
Write him at: Tom Torlakson
PO Box 21636
Concord, CA 94521
Call him at (925) 682-9998
Tweet him at @TorlaksonSSPI

More reading about the California CORE District NCLB waivers:

The Best Posts & Articles On The NCLB Waiver Given To Eight California School Districts (Including Ours) | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day...

Tension Is The Life Blood Of An Engaged Public Life

Six Questions About California CORE Districts’ Waiver - Politics K-12 - Education Week

NCLB Waiver in Hand, CORE Districts Move Ahead - District Dossier - Education Week

Alice Mercer teaches sixth grade at an elementary school in Sacramento, CA. She started her career in Oakland, Ca, and moved to Sacramento in 2001. Alice is active in her union doing social media outreach, and is on State Council, the policy setting body of the California Teachers Association. Her blog is Reflections on Teaching.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.