Arne Duncan gives No Child Left Behind waivers to California districts

The Obama administration will grant waivers to eight California school districts to free them from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, a precedent-setting move that creates a direct relationship between the federal government and local school systems.

It marks the first time that the Obama administration — which has granted waivers to the District of Columbia and 39 states — has opted to exempt individual school districts from the federal education law’s requirements, bypassing state government. The waivers will be in effect for the school year that begins in August.

The eight districts, which include Los Angeles and San Francisco, collectively educate more than a million students from kindergarten through high school. They banded together to seek an exemption from No Child Left Behind after California’s bid for a statewide waiver was rejected last year by the U.S. Education Department.

“We’re going directly to the districts, not to the state, and frankly working directly with districts wasn’t an easy decision,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Tuesday. “We’re not taking this on because it’s simple. We’re taking it on because it’s the right thing to do for more than a million students.”

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), one of the architects of No Child Left Behind who now considers it outdated, said the move would “provide the opportunity for more than a million students in California to break away from the most rigid requirements of NCLB that do little to ensure that all children are learning.”

But critics decried it as a terrible idea, creating a landscape where one school district follows one system of rules while a neighboring district follows another.

“As if state waivers weren’t convoluted enough, the administration has now decided to move forward with district-level waivers,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “One can only imagine the confusion this creates for families, teachers, and state and local education leaders.”

The nonpartisan organization that represents state education officials also criticized the plan.

“This is a pretty troubling development,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “The states have always traditionally been in control of accountability for most school districts. . . . The idea that the secretary of education is controlling the accountability system in eight districts in California is kind of mind-boggling.”

The waivers exempt the districts from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002. The law sets conditions and requirements for every public school receiving federal funds to educate poor students and those with special needs. It defines academic progress and sets specific improvement strategies and sanctions for schools that do not measure up. One requirement, that all students must be proficient in math and reading by 2014, is now broadly seen as unrealistic.

Congress was due to rewrite the law in 2007 but has been unable to agree on an update. House Republicans passed their version last month and Democrats on a Senate committee approved their own bill, raising doubts that both chambers will agree to a compromise soon.

With Congress stalled and complaints mounting from governors and school districts that they could not meet the demands of No Child Left Behind, Duncan began issuing waivers in 2011 to states, freeing them from the requirements if they agreed to embrace certain education policy changes favored by Obama.

Duncan rejected California’s bid for a waiver because the state refused to use student test scores to evaluate teachers, something the eight California districts agreed to do. They will be monitored by an oversight committee made up of state education officials, teachers unions and advocates for civil rights and the disabled. The committee will have the power to sanction or remove any district from the group for noncompliance, said Rick Miller, the executive director of the eight-member consortium.

Iowa is the only other state whose waiver request was rejected. Nebraska and Montana have not applied for a waiver; North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming have withdrawn their applications. The remaining states and the District all hold waivers, which would have to be renewed over the next several years.

In addition to using test scores to evaluate teachers, the eight California districts pledged to use other measures to determine school performance, including student growth, graduation rates, absenteeism, school culture and student surveys.

“We think it’s much more honest, more holistic, and paints a clearer picture of what’s working and what’s not,” Duncan said. “We’re convinced this will result over time in better outcomes.”

The eight districts also pledged for the first time to count the academic performance of 114,000 students who are African American, Hispanic, disabled, English-language learners or impoverished when calculating whether schools are performing, Duncan said. Under No Child Left Behind, the performance of those students are not be used to calculate how well a school is doing, he said. “They were invisible,” Duncan said.

In exchange, the districts will have great flexibility to use more than $150 million in federal funds they receive annually. In addition to Los Angeles and San Francisco, the other school districts are Fresno, Long Beach, Oakland, Sacramento, Sanger and Santa Ana Unified.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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