A brief summary of the new California district NCLB waivers

August 30, 2013 • Jon Schroeder

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan raised eyebrows August 6th when he agreed to grant waivers to eight California school districts on the most controversial accountability provisions in the federal “No Child Left Behind” law. The districts – including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento – serve more than one million students or about 20 percent of California’s overall K-12 student population.

The Obama Administration’s decision to grant waivers directly to school districts has been both criticized and downplayed in importance by California state officials, including Governor Jerry Brown. At the national level, the Council of Chief State School Officers called the district waivers “an unprecedented shift in the federal role in education – clearly usurping state leadership.”

Previously, the Obama Administration has granted NCLB waivers only to states – through their Departments of Education (SEAs) – that agree to develop alternatives accountability mechanisms that achieve overall NCLB goals and that are supported by major education stakeholders in each state. California’s earlier waiver request had been turned down for not meeting these requirements.

In response, the eight large districts decided to seek an NCLB waiver on their own. Although the waivers are technically made to each district, they – and two others – have been working together on testing, teacher evaluation and student accountability measures through a non-profit consortium – the California Office to Reform Education (CORE).

The big “trade-off” in the waiver for the U.S. Department appears to be the increased flexibility the districts will have on spending millions of dollars in Title I funds on tutoring and transportation costs for schools not meeting their AYP targets each year. The districts will also be able to continue development their own student accountability measures, as long as they are “higher than those established under No Child Left Behind.”

And, Duncan said, the waiver presumes the districts will continue their work to “improve instruction, promoting continuous learning and joint professional development and support for teachers” Presumably, this is in lieu of state statutory requirements the U.S. Department has been pushing that require student test results to be used to help evaluate individual teacher performance.

In exchange, the districts have agreed to increase accountability and transparency for improving academic achievement of racial, income and other subgroups by reducing the size of “subgroups” – that each have their test results reported – from 100 to 20 students per school.

With the lower student threshold, the eight districts must now report school-level progress on standardized tests for an additional 150,000 African American, Hispanic and low income students, as well as English learners and students with disabilities.

It remains to be seen whether this latest action by the Obama Administration – with its assumption of previously held state and legislative branch authority – will spur Congressional action on ESEA. Or, if Congressional gridlock continues, the California waivers could encourage hundreds of urban and other districts to seek similar flexibility.