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

Last month the U.S.  Education Department for the first time rescinded one of the waivers it gave to states that exempts them the most onerous parts of the flawed No Child Left Behind law. It was Washington’s, and as a result, the state will  have to comply with all parts of No Child Left Behind — even though it is a law that Education Secretary Arne Duncan himself has said is fatally flawed. In fact, because of the peculiarities of the way the law was written, nearly all of Washington’s public schools will now be seen as failing even though nothing actually changed in the schools. If it makes no sense to you, it doesn’t to a lot of other people either, especially in Washington state.

Here is an open letter that David Iseminger, a member of the school board in Lake Stevens and a Microsoft employee, wrote to Duncan about this turn of events. Iseminger is on the board of the Washington State School Directors Association and is active in state and national education advocacy. He works in the Cloud+Enterprise division at Microsoft as a senior content developer for business intelligence. Follow him on Twitter @DavidIseminger, or share your thoughts and stories with #NoWaiver.  

April 29, 2014

Dear Secretary Duncan,

Last week you revoked Washington State’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver, resulting in nearly every school in Washington being considered failing by your Department of Education. This summer, as a School Board Director in Lake Stevens, WA, you’re requiring I send a “failure letter” to parents of any school that receives your funding.

Your reason for revoking our waiver: we didn’t pass legislation you wanted. More precisely, we passed legislation, but it didn’t have the wording (actually, one specific word) you wanted.

Since you’re so distant from us – nearly 3,000 miles by one measure – let me tell you about this other Washington: We have strong leadership in our board rooms, schools, and classrooms; we have professional and effective educators; and our students are capable, confident, and work extremely hard. But don’t take my word for it – our SAT scores, among other measures, speak for us.

When NCLB was passed twelve years ago, it focused America’s resolve to elevate our children and our future. It was about accountability, about setting lofty and worthwhile goals, but it was also about believing in our educators, leaders, parents, and students. It was about what we would strive for, work toward. It was aspirational.

Today, NCLB has been subverted into a name-calling, label-applying bully pulpit. It languished in Congress, now six years stale, until failure according to its antiquated yardstick has become a certainty.

We tried to help. With input and work from many education advocates, Congress was provided an extensive list of fixes that would make NCLB workable and forward-thinking, and keep us all accountable. I was there too – as a member of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) Federal Relations Network (FRN), I made the trek to Washington D.C. multiple times to ask our members to reauthorize, year after year. While there, many of us from Washington also met with people from your Department of Education, in your building, trying to create relationships and press for a change in policy and tone: stop telling our students and educators they’re failing, I said.

In Lake Stevens — and in school districts across America — we lead by example. We create confidence, capacity, knowledge, and opportunity for everyone in our community. There is a palpable and ubiquitous culture of excellence in Lake Stevens, where it’s common knowledge that each individual is supported, challenged, engaged, and empowered. Such things don’t appear overnight, they’re not accidental, and I have no intention of having our work undermined by distant labels and bracketed explanations.

The schools you’d have us call “failing” are anything but: we have Schools of Distinction (one of them four years running), we have Washington Achievement Awards schools, and we have a Reward School.

The leaders whom you also assert are failing – me included – are not. Our school board has won the national Magna Award and is a recognized Board of Distinction. I am an elected member to the Board of Directors for our state-level Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA), and my fellow Lake Stevens Board Director is President of WSSDA.

It’s not that I don’t understand your NCLB numbers or metrics. I work in the Business Intelligence group at Microsoft, part of the Cloud + Enterprise Division, so data and analytics is what I do.

And I’ve done the analysis. I’ve weighed the cost of your revoked waiver and considered its benefits, and the conclusion is clear: it’s not worth it.

You can keep the waiver. And regarding your failure letter – I have little interest in using our Lake Stevens letterhead to tell our students and educators they’re failures, because they are not. That letter is the topic of much discussion in our state – including whether we send it at all.

Our school leaders are strong, our educators are exceptional, and our students are dedicated. Fourteen days before school, what they will hear from leaders in Lake Stevens is this: the bar this year is raised again, we believe in you, and you must continue to strive for excellence. They will hear that we are behind them, and that we believe in them without reservation, or caveat.

If you pull our funding, you’ll be forsaking Washington’s most needy students – the very students for whom the original ESEA legislation was passed 50 years ago. You’ll be abandoning those students, but we won’t. In Lake Stevens – and in every district across America – we’ll do whatever we must to ensure no child is left behind, waiver or not.

The irony is not lost on me: you revoked our waiver because we didn’t pass a law that you wanted. If you’re not sure what to do with our education-related failure letter, I know 536 folks in Washington, D.C. who seem pretty deserving right now.


David Iseminger

School Director, Lake Stevens School Board, Washington State, @DavidIseminger