State loses education waiver, schools lose dollars

Tri-City HeraldApril 24, 2014 

Hanford English Class

September 15, 2013 - Hanford High School language arts teacher Kim Maldonado leads her class in the analysis of an article about terrorism. Washington school districts are preparing to implement the Common Core State Standards beginning next year. Some have expressed concern that it will affect content taught in classrooms and strain districts financially.

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Federal officials will not renew Washington’s waiver from the No Child Left Behind law that sets accountability standards for schools, taking away control of millions of dollars from Mid-Columbia districts.

The inability of state lawmakers to create a law that would more firmly tie standardized test scores to teacher evaluations led federal officials to revoke a state waiver.

The state had a conditional waiver for two years, allowing the state to set up an alternative set of accountability requirements.

Many schools are expected to be listed as "failing" now that federal standards are back in place. That means districts will have to set aside 20 percent of federal money for helping struggling and disadvantaged students.

That amounts to $1 million in the Pasco School District alone and means instead of paying for in-school tutors and teachers, districts will have to pay for private tutors or other services with little local oversight.

“This takes it right out of our pocket,” said Pasco Assistant Superintendent Liz Flynn.

About $40 million in federal money across the state is at stake. The loss of the waiver means the Kennewick School District stands to lose control of $678,000 while Richland schools would lose about $300,000.

“Right now, we just got the news and we know we’re going to have to cut somewhere,” said Kennewick Superintendent Dave Bond.

It’s too soon to say how the loss of funding will directly affect school budgets. Some district administrators said they’ve been preparing for the cuts given the Legislature’s failure to meet federal demands.

The most likely outcome is scaling back after-school and summer school programs, with the possible loss of some in-school support staff, such as reading and math aides.

“This now kicks in the head any ongoing work or consistency with programs for identified students,” Prosser Superintendent Ray Tolcacher said in an email to state lawmakers.

Flynn said that the set-aside money means qualifying students would be eligible for about $1,300 to pay for private tutoring or similar services. But districts have no oversight on the people providing those services.

Flynn said those contractors often charge high rates that provide only about 20 hours of help a year, don’t provide transportation and do not always employ the best teaching practices.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan notified the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction Thursday morning of the decision.

Duncan wrote that he appreciated the state’s effort to reform its schools, but said officials there hadn’t done enough to keep the flexibility waiver, reported The Associated Press.

“Washington has not been able to keep all of its commitments,” Duncan wrote.

Washington and other states received waivers from No Child Left Behind in recent years. The controversial law could list a school as failing even if almost all students were overachieving in reading and math but a single subgroup, such as special education students or English language learners, was behind.

Waivers allowed the states to set up their own school performance criteria, though that criteria was still subject to federal approval.

State law encourages districts to consider student test scores in assessing teacher performance but federal officials demanded a stronger tie-in.

State lawmakers ended up rejecting a proposed law that would have required test scores to be considered when assessing teachers after the state’s teachers union opposed it.

Teachers weren’t the only ones opposing the move. District administrators also questioned requiring test scores to be tied to teacher evaluations, especially as the state moves to new standardized assessments and not all educators play an equal role in preparing students for them.

Several Mid-Columbia districts are part of a final field test of new standardized assessments based on the math- and language arts-focused Common Core State Standards.

Those districts are excused from taking the state’s standardized test, the Measures of Student Progress, or MSP, in its final year.

“Since the district will receive no scores from this ‘norming’ test, what assessments will satisfy the (No Child Left Behind) assessment data for the current year?” asked Columbia-Burbank Superintendent Lou Gates.

The loss of the waiver led to finger-pointing from state lawmakers, reported the AP. A Republican lawmaker who chairs the Senate Education Committee blamed the state’s largest teachers union, which fought against changes to the teacher evaluation system.

"This was easily avoidable," Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, told the AP.

The Washington Education Association said the Legislature did the right thing earlier this year when it opted not to change the state’s teacher evaluation system.

“I can only conclude rescinding the waiver is a failure of federal policy, not of our public schools, students or teachers,” WEA President Kim Mead said in a written statement.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, told the AP he was frustrated.

“If the goal was to help students be successful, I’m trying to figure out how the action taken by the Department of Education, how that will lead to better student outcomes,” he said. “You’re penalizing the poorest schools in the state of Washington.”

But some do see a possible silver lining to the loss of the waiver.

“One of my hopes is that as every school in Washington state will be deemed a failing school it will highlight that this legislation needs to be updated and more realistic targets need to be developed,” Bond said.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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