Arne Duncan brings hammer down on Washington state, pulling its ‘No Child’ waiver


President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. (Yuri Gripas/ Reuters)

The Education Department is for the first time yanking one of the waivers it gave to states that exempts them the most onerous parts of the flawed No Child Left Behind law.

As a result, Washington state will now have to comply with all parts of No Child Left Behind. Because of the peculiarities of the law, this means that virtually all of the state’s public schools will be seen as failing because they didn’t not meet set performance goals.

It has been universally acknowledged that the performance goals — which called for nearly all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014 — were impossible to achieve and even the authors called them “aspirational.” The law was supposed to have been rewritten seven years ago, but it has remained in force as Congress has been unable to craft a new K-12 education bill.

Washington state lost its waiver because officials had promised to tie educator evaluations to student standardized test scores, but the legislature recently failed to take action to ensure that would happen. Education Secretary Arne Duncan linked waiver approval to certain reforms, including an expansion of charter schools and the linking of educator evaluations to student test scores. That method of evaluation is highly controversial given that assessment experts say it is an unreliable method, but school reformers have embraced it anyway.

When Washington state formally loses its waiver at the end of this year, it will (if it hasn’t fixed the problem by then) have to comply with all aspects of No Child Left Behind, which Duncan himself has called fatally flawed and in need of an overhaul by Congress.

Washington state has carried out a number of the Duncan-approved school reforms, but the education secretary apparently wanted to send a message about how important he views the linking  of evaluations to standardized test scores. When Washington’s waiver is gone, it will leave 42 states with waivers, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and eight school districts in California that applied on their own without state approval.

In a letter Duncan sent to Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn (see below) , the education secretary said he knew that returning to full compliance “is not desirable” and won’t “be simple.”

But he’s making Washington state do it anyway.

Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said in a statement:

Today’s news from Secretary Duncan is disappointing but not unexpected. The loss of this waiver could have been avoided if the state legislature had acted last session. The waiver provided districts flexibility to use nearly $40 million in federal funds to support struggling students. Loss of that funding means those districts now face potential impacts that could include laying off some of Washington’s tremendous teachers or cutting back on programs that serve at-risk students. I hope districts will work to mitigate impacts on students. I know that despite this setback Washington teachers remain fully committed to serving our students.

Back in 2011, the Obama administration began a program to grant states waivers from key provisions of the law, but only to those states “willing to embrace education reform” — meaning Obama-style education reform.

At the time, Melody Barnes, then head of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, and Duncan noted that the law was fundamentally flawed and that the administration was offering waivers because states were begging for relief.

The biggest issue facing states under the law was the mandate involving  “annual yearly progress,” which insisted that almost all students achieve proficient levels on math and reading standardized exams by 2014.  Even Duncan said the target was unattainable.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) put out a statement saying that she is “deeply disappointed by the loss of this waiver and concerned about the impact it will have on students, teachers, and school districts across our state.” She also said that Congress must work to rewrite the law. She’s right, but she likely knows it isn’t likely. She noted in her statement:

I have made clear time and again that I will work with anyone who is willing to reauthorize ESEA, but to date, making progress on updating this law has been an unnecessarily partisan fight. We must come together at all levels of government in order to put students first.

Fat chance.

The Duncan letter:

Waiver Letter

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 24