Federal crackdown on education standards creates state questions

The Obama administration finally uses its hammer. But it's hard to know what might change for schools, students and teachers.
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Washington Schools Superintendent Randy Dorn

The Obama administration finally uses its hammer. But it's hard to know what might change for schools, students and teachers.

Washington became the first state in the union Thursday to lose its No Child Left Behind Act waiver. But what does that really mean?

The answer is likely a few months away. The state will lose some flexibility in how it can allocate some federal dollars. But too many unknowns and variables still exist among Washington's 295 school districts to provide any clear-cut answers at this time.

Political shots were fired Thursday when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent a letter to Randy Dorn, Washington's Superintendent of Public Instruction, to remove the state's conditional waiver from some of the requirements No Child Left Behind Act. As expected, Duncan pointed to the failure of the Washington Legislature to pass a bill earlier this year to make certain student standardized test scores one part of teachers' evaluations. That failure stemmed from complicated and sometimes confusing Olympia political maneuvers.

"I think it's a significant concern. The Legislature knew this would happen if it didn't act, and it chose not to act," said Dave Powell, executive director of the education advocacy organization Stand For Children. He noted that while Washington argued itself into political paralysis, Oregon has installed such a system that met the federal requirements.

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, who led the Senate's opposition against the evaluation system bill, said, "The sky is not falling." 

Without the teacher-evaluations component, Duncan wrote, Washington became ineligible for the waiver that had allowed the state and local school districts more flexibility in allocating federal Title I money. The Title 1 program provides extra funding for high-poverty schools with poor performance scores.

The federal money involves amounts ranging from $38 million to $40 million in 2015-2017.

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

Public Instruction Superintendent Dorn said, “Washington state has been doing great work under our waiver agreement. We have developed our own system that more accurately reflects the progress being made by schools across the state. But to get our waiver renewed for next year, the (federal) Department of Education was clear: The Legislature needed to amend state law to require teacher and principal evaluations to include student growth on state tests, when appropriate. I agree. Student progress should be one of multiple elements in a teacher’s evaluation.

In an unusually clear statement for a Democratic elected official repeatedly supported by the Washington Education Association, Dorn added, "Unfortunately the teacher’s union felt it was more important to protect their members than agree to that change and pressured the Legislature not to act.”

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, tried to get the evaluations installed in the last legislative session. However, his bill went down on the Senate floor by a surprise combination of minority Democrats and conservative Republicans. Inslee supported Litzow's bill.

“Losing our waiver will hurt student achievement in our state, which is why we repeatedly offered to compromise with the most simple fix possible," Litzow said.

But others countered that the No Child Left Behind Act and the proposed teacher evaluation system were too flawed to justify passing Litzow's bill — despite the fact that it was almost a clone of an earlier bill by McAuliffe, who led the Senate Democrats in their later opposition to Litzow's legislation.

Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said, “No Child Left Behind has proven to be ineffective — that is why 42 states receive this waiver. Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature were not willing to risk our kids' futures for policies that don’t work. The reality is the feds want a one-size-fits-all system that doesn’t fit Washington."

McAuliffe said teachers and principals designed Washington's current evaluation system, which she contended is the best in the nation. "When the federal government goes to tell us what to do under a failed policy, the No Child Left Behind Act, it angers me," McAuliffe said.

The Washington Education Association did not like the teacher evaluation bill because it would tie salary decisions to test scores, which the WEA contended teachers could not fully control. 

WEA spokesman Rich Wood said, "Contrary to what has been reported, Washington will not lose federal funding for students in low-income schools. In reality, school districts will temporarily lose some flexibility on how they spend that money." 

And this is where the potential effects of losing the waiver become hazy.

The No-Child-Left-Behind waiver is for how 20 percent of Washington's Title I money — federal funds earmarked to help poorly performing students in high-poverty schools — should be spent.

With the waiver, a local school district can allocate its 20 percent for a wide variety of purposes. For example, the Tacoma school system has used its 20 percent to pay for pre-school programs at five elementary schools, instead of allocating that 20 percent to providing extra help for tutoring kids with academic needs, as the federal law would otherwise require. Without the waiver, that 20 percent can be allocated solely for the extra tutoring — usually done by private contractors in arrangements with public schools. In Tacoma's case, that 20 percent translates to $1.8 million.

In other words, with the wavier, a school district can put that 20 percent of the federal Title I money into its overall budget. Without the waiver, a school has to allocate the 20 percent specifically for tutoring, and cannot use it as revenue for its local priorities in helping struggling students.

Extra fuzziness comes in because not all schools will be affected. And it is currently unknown which school districts will actually see changes in their budget pictures. Factors include poverty levels of individual schools, and how well the schools do on the standardized tests, which are being conducted this spring. Those test results won't be publicly known until late summer or early fall.

"We can't predict how schools will meet (the 2014 standards) because the students are currently taking the tests," said OSPI spokeswoman Kristen Jaudon.

Another complication in making predictions is that the state changed how its measures student-and-school performances for allocating money, meaning the 2012 and 2013 measurements can't be accurately compared to what is measured in 2014, Jaudon said. Meanwhile, if a school district is required to use all of the 20 percent on tutoring but does not actually spend the cash within a specific time period, that money will become eligible again to be used for other purposes.

There seems to be no expectation of avoiding the uncertain consequences of the Obama administration's withdrawal of the waiver. No plans have been made to address the loss-of-the-waiver issue other than to factor it into future budget discussions, said Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith. She said: "There is no Plan B."

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8