State loses waiver to No Child Left Behind Act

OLYMPIA — U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Thursday revoked the state’s waiver to the No Child Left Behind Act, a decision expected ever since lawmakers refused the federal agency’s demand to change how Washington teachers are evaluated.

Washington becomes the first state in the country to lose the waiver that exempted schools from rigorous — and, in the eyes of educators, onerous — requirements of the Bush-era legislation.

“Today’s news from Secretary Duncan is disappointing but not unexpected,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “The loss of this waiver could have been avoided if the state legislature had acted last session.”

Losing the waiver means that this summer, tens of thousands of parents will receive a letter telling them that, in the eyes of the federal government, their child attends a failing school.

Another consequence is school districts will have to spend part of their allotment of federal dollars on services such as off-campus tutoring programs and transportation to get students to the tutors, rather than in the classroom.

And because some school districts now spend those dollars on kindergarten classes, learning assistance programs and para-educators, there is a potential for layoffs.

Funding associated with the waiver is estimated to be around $40 million statewide in the current school year. The larger the district, the greater the financial effect. For example, Everett School District will need to set aside $550,000 next school year, officials said.

“We just lost $40 million in flexibility that is helping kids get educated,” said Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, chairman of the Senate education committee and of the ruling Majority Coalition Caucus.

He sponsored a bill to satisfy the demands of the federal agency but it was defeated by a coalition of seven Republicans and 21 Democrats. The Washington Education Association opposed the bill and Litzow said the teachers union pressured Democrats into voting against it.

“It is absolutely appalling that we had an easily avoidable fix to get the waiver and the teachers union would not allow Senator (Sharon) Nelson and the rest of the Senate Democrats to vote for it,” he said.

Nelson, leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said the focus of state legislators must be on fully funding schools and convincing Congress to fix the federal education law that forces states to adopt rules that do not benefit students.

“No Child Left Behind has proven to be ineffective,” she said in a statement. “Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature were not willing to risk our kids’ futures for policies that don’t work.”

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell and former chairwoman of the Senate education panel, echoed the sentiment.

“The waiver is just a distraction and it just highlights a failed federal policy that did nothing to help our students’ learning,” she said.

The federal education law set a 2014 deadline for every child in the nation to be reading and doing math at grade level. States that meet certain requirements regarding student growth and evaluating teachers, including using test data in the evaluations, have been granted waivers from the law.

Washington obtained a conditional waiver in 2011, with the reasoning being that officials were in the process of setting up the state’s evaluation process. In August 2013 it received a one-year extension as its new process got launched.

In Washington’s evaluation system, scores on statewide assessments are one factor that can be used in determining the performance of teachers, but the assessments are not required.

That’s the rub. The U.S. Department of Education insists the test scores be one of the measures of student growth used in evaluations.

Inslee and Dorn met with Duncan in late February and explained the political challenges to complying. They left the meeting believing that if the state made change by September 2017, Washington would retain its waiver.

But no bill passed.

“We are disappointed, but not surprised by the DOE action,” Edmonds Schools Superintendent Nick Brossoit wrote in an email. “We lose some flexibility with this and it will confuse many in the public.

“I admire the elected officials in our state for not messing up the teachers evaluation system by changing the law just to comply with the federal waiver,” he wrote. “Quality teaching and learning will go forward, in spite of, and not because of, this federal action.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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