An ambivalent State Board of Education discussed but took no action Wednesday on pursuing a temporary waiver from strictures of the No Child Left Behind law. The state will pass up the two application deadlines as a result.
California could still apply in June for a two-year relief from the law. Los Angeles Unified is among the districts favoring a waiver, and several Board members indicated interest as well – if the state can negotiate terms more to its liking. However, the Obama administration has given no public indication yet that it's willing to bend on its terms.
Because Congress has been unable to agree on how to fix a flawed NCLB, President Obama has offered states a deal: For two years, they'd no longer be bound by many of NCLB's disliked provisions, which have led to labeling most schools as failing. They also would gain flexibility in using a portion of Title I money for poor kids, in exchange for agreeing to several requirements. States would have to move ahead with Common Core or rigorous college and career standards, to focus on fixing 15 percent of schools (the worst performers and those with the biggest achievement gaps), and to adopt teacher and administrator evaluations based partly on test scores – a demand staunchly opposed by the California Teachers Association as an intrusion on local collective bargaining. CTA lobbyist Ken Burt called the waiver "money down a rat hole," and said the state should focus on working on Congress to pass a better law.
But drawn to the prospect of getting out from under NCLB's thumb, 39 states and the District of Columbia have expressed interest in a waiver. Some of those are Race to the Top winners that already are complying with the requirements.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, however, has called for a waiver without conditions and criticized Obama for overstepping his authority in requiring test-based teacher evaluations.
The state Department of Education's cost-benefit analysis of the waivers found what State Board member James Aschwanden called "jaw-dropping numbers." The Department put the net price tag to California of between $2 billion and $2.7 billion. Broken down, the costs would include:
- $600 million to implement Common Core, through: teacher training,237.5 million; buying textbooks and materials,237.5 million; and adopting English learner standards,118 million;
- $410 million to fix the 15 percent low-performing schools;
- $76 million to train principals and conduct evaluations for all teachers.
Torlakson called the Obama plan "not so much a waiver as a substitution for a new set of requirements and a new set of challenges." And he said California would run the risk of moving in one direction with the waivers, only to have Congress head in another direction by passing a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the formal name for NCLB).
The state Department of Education offered no corroborating cost estimates from other states, and those favoring the waiver said the Department undervalued the financial benefits and overestimated the costs of transitioning to Common Core, which the state will have to do anyway. Rick Miller, a former deputy state superintendent who's now executive director of the nonprofit California Office to Reform Education (CORE), said the seven districts comprising CORE could redirect $84 million to rehire teachers and counselors by redirecting dollars that had to have been spent on tutoring services in Program Improvement schools. "Do the waiver as soon as possible for needed flexibility," he said.
One of the CORE districts is Los Angeles Unified. Superintendent John Deasy's deputy chief of staff, Tommy Chang, testified that the district is already attempting to do what the waiver calls for by shifting dollars within its existing budget: preparing for Common Core and shifting to new teacher evaluations that incorporate measures of student progress.
Brad Strong, senior policy director with Children Now, acknowledged that the waiver's demand that the state expedite its spending on evaluations and Common Core would be "a huge lift." But it's far from certain whether Congress will reauthorize NCLB anytime soon, he said, and California needs the will to develop a quality plan for Common Core and an evaluation system that improves learning for all kids.
Adopting a wait-and-see middle ground, the Association of California School Administrators called for putting off a waiver for six months while pressing Congress to pass a new NCLB as proposed in the bipartisan Senate bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming. Failing that, ACSA said in a letter to the State Board, the state should apply for a waiver "based on what California believes is in the best interest of our students and schools and not based on prescriptive conditions."
State Board member Trish Williams said she was interested in having California submit a "customized" waiver application. Saying she was frustrated that California has missed out on a number of education grants and programs she said, "Would Washington like to work with California? I would like to find a way that would benefit us, and we could live with."
Chang, Miller and others also expressed the hope that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would eventually permit large districts like Los Angeles Unified and groups of districts like CORE to apply for waivers on their own, if California refused to.John Fensterwald is the editor and co-writer of TOPed.org, a blog on California education policy. Follow him on Twitter (@jfenster) and at www.toped.org.