Arne Duncan ((Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)) Education Secretary Arne Duncan (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

I recently published an open letter by a school board member in Washington named David Iseminger to Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the Education Department’s revocation of the state’s waiver from onerous parts of No Child Left Behind.  Congress was supposed to rewrite NCLB seven years ago but it hasn’t. Recognizing NCLB’s problems — such as an impossible mandate that virtually all students would score proficient in math and reading by 2014 —  the Obama administration offered waivers from the most onerous NCLB mandates to states that agreed to do what it wanted in school reform. Washington state won a waiver, but, recently, the Education Department revoked it because the state legislature did not mandate that teacher evaluations be linked to student test scores. Despite the department’s recognition that NCLB is fundamentally flawed, it is now forcing the state to comply with it. And under NCLB, nearly all of Washington’s public schools will now be seen as failing — even spectacular schools.

In the following post, Mary Fertakis, a 19-year school board director in the Tukwila School District —  a high-poverty, high-ELL district that has been cited by the New York Times as the most ethnically diverse district in the country — writes about how the revocation of the waiver will directly affect students. She is a past president of the Washington State School Directors Association, and holds a Master’s of Education degree in Education Policy from the University of Washington.

By Mary Fertakis

Consider three schools in Washington state.  There’s Aviation High School, where Education Secretary Arne Duncan  visited several years ago and declared it to be “an amazing example of what’s possible in public education.” Mercer Island High School had more than 99 percent of students exceed standard on last year’s state math assessments. Cascade View Elementary has become a state-wide model for innovative intervention assisting a large population of refugee children–with no formalized education or English language skills–become thriving students.

What do these schools have in common? They are all failing under No Child Left Behind, according to No Child Left Behind.

How is it possible for schools like these, and the children who attend them, to be failures? This is the result of a deeply flawed policy and a lack of leadership to fix it. No Child Left Behind’s stated goal was that all students would achieve virtually 100 percent proficiency on each state’s reading and math tests by 2014. The law was supposed to be rewritten in 2007, but for seven years Congress has failed to exercise its legislative responsibility to rewrite and reauthorize the law. The U.S. Department of Education stepped in to do the policy work of Congress (which is an over-reach of its function) by creating a waiver process to address the reality that no state was going to achieve 100 percent proficiency in all 37 areas dictated by the law. At the same time, it was an opportunity to insert conditions that furthered the Obama administration’s and Department of Education’s education agenda. One of those conditions was evaluating teachers on the basis of student standardized test scores. Our state legislature and teacher’s union butt heads on one word – “may” vs. “must” – on the student growth indicator for teacher evaluations — and lawmakers failed to make this a requirement. That was the end of the waiver.

I have been a school board director in Washington state for the entire NCLB era. We’ve had Republican and Democrat presidents, and Republicans and Democrats controlling the U.S. House during that time, and  re-authorization has gone nowhere under all of them.

Every year I traveled to Washington D.C. with my school board colleagues from around the country to share with our congressional delegations what needed to be fixed to make NCLB workable, and to urge our members to work with their colleagues to get it done. Every year we heard excuses like: “It’s an election year,” or “Next year is an election year,” or  “I’m not on the education committee,” or “We’re dealing with the war/inauguration/recession/stimulus package/sequestration, etc.,” or  “So-and-so Senator/Representative doesn’t want to move on this so it’s not going to happen.” Each chamber has a version of the bill sitting in their respective sides of the Capitol, and they haven’t gotten past their excuses to do the work they were elected to do.

This  failure of leadership has a trickle-down effect:  punishing Washington State’s children.  Secretary Duncan’s press release on our waiver revocation states, “The U.S. Department of Education will work with Washington officials as the state transitions back to No Child Left Behind and will try to help the state preserve the gains [my emphasis] it has made under the last two years of flexibility from the law.”

Duncan is acknowledging that the waiver’s flexibility contributed to gains Washington state has made in the last two years during a period when local districts regained control of how the “set-aside funds” (20 percent of a district’s Title I allocation) could be spent. Yet now he is reinstating despised portions of NCLB in Washington state. What else to think except that children are being used as pawns in a political chess match being played by adults?

Consider these examples of what happened to schools before the waiver:

* Chiawana High School, a brand new school in the Pasco School District, was required to send a letter to parents of incoming students informing them that the school was a “failing” school – before it had even opened its doors. Why? Because more than 50 percent students who would be attending this new school, were coming from a high school  considered failing under NCLB rules.

*The Yakima School District, located in the central, agricultural part of Washington and serving a large Hispanic population, had to earmark over $1 million per year for tutoring services from a list of state-approved vendors – most of whom were located out-of-state or on the west side (several hours away), and none of whom spoke Spanish. Their services consisted of on-line tutoring, and many of the eligible families did not have computers or internet access.

* The Tukwila School District is located in a designated refugee service area which receives federal funding to assist in refugee resettlement efforts. Refugees arrive from different countries throughout the year and students are constantly entering and exiting the English Language Learner programs, making it impossible to achieve 100 percent proficiency on the English Language Learners indicators for reading and math.

How will our students be affected now?

* It is 2014 and the 100 percent proficiency goal has not been met. That means nearly every one of our 2,300 schools will be considered failing. Of the 295 school districts in Washington, 289 receive Title I dollars, so they are now failures. The six districts not included have between 8 and 33 students each, totaling 115 of our state’s 1,047,390 K-12 population.

* The “failing” label triggers the letter to parents. This letter will be required for ALL schools in a district – not just the schools receiving Title I funds.

* Under the waiver, districts had the flexibility to use the previously required “set aside” funds in ways that were targeted to their students’ needs, such as full-day kindergarten, in-school tutoring, after-school academic activities, and para-professionals to assist teachers in classrooms. Now, these programs could be subject to cuts or elimination since 20 percent of our Title I funds (about $40 million) must be redirected to a restricted list of Supplemental Educational Services supports from a list of state-approved providers.

There is plenty of blame for adults at the federal and state level to share, but the failure ultimately rests with Congress. And the biggest losers — not failures — in Washington state are those who have no voice or vote: our children.