By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Local educators are casting a wary eye on the Obama administration’s recent offer to release states from some of the most stringent aspects of the federal No Child Left Behind law in exchange for taking on a new set of regulations.
President Barack Obama unveiled the plan last month, allowing states that qualify for the waiver to be freed from provisions under No Child Left Behind — including the requirement that all students be proficient in English and math by 2013-14.
But in exchange, states that accept the waiver must agree to another set of rules remarkably similar to those laid out under Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, including making test scores a component of teacher and administrator evaluations, as well as imposing standards meant to better prepare students for college and careers.
“This won’t impact California until 2013 at the earliest,” said Steve Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education. “The state has to get it and the district would petition the state for a local waiver. We don’t know what those terms and conditions are.”
Bellevue Superintendent Tony Roehrick called the plan’s requirement that the state apply for the waiver — as opposed to county offices of educations or districts — as “misguided.”
“It punishes schools that are in states that for whatever reason don’t have the political will to do what it takes to get the waiver,” he said.
Local educators said California isn’t likely to apply for a waiver — much less succeed in getting one.
After much fiery debate, California applied for Obama’s Race to the Top funds 2010, but didn’t receive any federal money. Race to the Top, like the most recent proposal, called for the inclusion of student test scores in teacher evaluations.
California began allowing districts to negotiate test results into evaluations, but didn’t mandate it, according to Roehrick.
“My understanding is when they looked at California’s Race to the Top application, they weren’t happy,” he said.
Still, with the 2013-14 deadline for proficiency looming and a record number of schools and districts deemed failing under federal guidelines, state schools chief Tom Torlakson in August asked for relief from federal penalties — without the addition of an added set of mandates.
States are expected to indicate this month whether they intend to apply for a waiver and they will be doled out early next year. It is unclear if California will apply for a waiver this month.
Obama’s announcement of the waiver plan is being seen by some locally as the administration’s effort to side-step a politically stalled Congress that is now years behind in reauthorizing the controversial education law.
“The reason for the waiver is because of the inability of the federal legislature to approve a revision of the changes and (No Child Left Behind),” said Steve Bolman, interim superintendent of Petaluma City Schools. “We are still waiting — knowing that in just a couple of years, virtually every district will be a PI (Program Improvement)district.”
Twelve of Sonoma County’s 40 districts are on Program Improvement status, which triggers a progressively strict series of actions designed to bring struggling schools into compliance with federal standards. Schools that fail can be required to offer additional academic support, allow students to transfer to non-Program Improvement-labeled schools, make staff changes and eventually turn operations over to the state.
A record 53 Sonoma County schools fell into federal sanctions as a result of the STAR tests given last spring.
In the new plan, states that are granted waivers would have more control over how struggling schools are handled.
“They have that carrot out there, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough for California,” Roehrick said. “It’s unfortunate, because it’s going to continue to label schools that are doing well as failures.”
Obama’s continued push to use test scores to evaluate both teachers and administrators has raised concern among some education groups who debate how large a portion of the evaluation should be based on scores and how a student’s academic growth should be factored in.
The California Teachers Association has long bristled at making test scores a substantial portion of a teacher’s evaluation.
The latest proposal “swaps one federal, top-down mandate for another,” according to Dean Vogel, president of the 325,000-member California Teachers Association.
Casey D’Angelo, superintendent of Rincon Valley schools, said that test scores could become a valuable component of a revised evaluation system.
“I do think we have to revise the evaluation system that we have. I do think we can do better than we do,” he said.
But D’Angelo and others said growth, and not a set bar for all students no matter how their scores have increased over time, needs to be measured.
Still, educators, many of whom are feeling the pressure of Program Improvement sanctions, said they are not willing to support the waiver plan until more questions are answered about what the Obama administration wants and how the changes will be paid for.
“Right now we are just trying to find some answers,” said Erika Hoffman, principal legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association. “There are lots and lots of questions — and it’s going to take some money.”
While No Child Left Behind has put the focus on deadlines that hit in the 2013-14 school year, the 2012 election will likely play a bigger role in whether changes are made to federal law or not, D’Angelo said.
“I think something will change,” he said. “But I don’t really see things changing before the next election.”
Staff writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.