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California Districts Receive Special Waiver From No Child Left Behind

Eight California districts—including the mammoth Los Angeles Unified—have won a special one-year waiver from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan after months of writing, rewriting, tweaking, and polishing what will be a first-of-its-kind reprieve from the federal education law.

Duncan announced the decision today in a call with reporters. He was joined by Chris Steinhauser, the superintendent in Long Beach—one of the districts that make up what is known as CORE, or the California Office to Reform Education.

"We are convinced that this will result in better outcomes for students over time for the 1 million students in the districts," Duncan told reporters as he praised the eight superintendents who took "risks" to assemble the waiver plan.

In addition to Los Angeles and Long Beach, the waiver will cover the districts in San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland, Fresno, Santa Ana, and Sanger. A ninth district, Clovis Unified, while still a member of CORE, decided belatedly to rescind its waiver request and stick with its current accountability structure under NCLB. The approval comes just in the nick of time as the districts near the start of the new school year. (Read Politics K-12's take on the unprecedented waiver approval here.)

"By no means are we walking away from accountability," Steinhauser said. "This is a great day for California and the 1 million students we serve in our districts."

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have already received waivers. California failed last year to receive its own NCLB waiver largely because it ignored one of the Education Department's key requirements: including student outcomes in teacher evaluations.

Duncan said he knew of no other school districts in the remaining 11 states without NCLB waivers that are considering a similar proposal. He maintained that the department's preference was still to work with states.

The eight districts—which collectively enroll close to 1 million students—will operate under a radically different school accountability system from the rest of the state and dramatically alter the relationship they have with the California department of education when it comes to federal accountability.

For the districts, the waiver means the $150 million in federal funds that they would have had to collectively spend on tutoring and school choice under NCLB rules is available to spend in ways they deem best for students.

In measuring schools' success, the CORE waiver's accountability system will look not only at academic progress, but also judge how well schools do at eliminating disparities in rates of student discipline and absenteeism, for example. Specifically, 60 percent of a school's score on the "School Quality Improvement Index" will be based on academic measures, 20 percent will be based on social-emotional factors, and 20 percent on school culture and climate.

Michael Hanson, the superintendent in Fresno, said he expects the CORE districts to be a pilot for the rest of California, where the state department of education is also working on plans to broaden accountability to include non-academic measures.

"We were able to get there faster," he said.

In April, the districts submitted their waiver proposal and have been working feverishly ever since to get it into a form that would win Duncan's approval. Some of the major revisions they made from their original proposal were to scrap a plan to count only the test scores from the last grade in each school for accountability purposes. Federal law requires testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school for accountability.

They also lowered the accountability subgroup "n size" to 20 from 100. Duncan spent a lot of time praising this change, saying it would mean many more schools will be accountable for the performance of disadvantaged students who have been invisible under the 100 student threshold. In Long Beach, Steinhauser said the change means that all but two of the district's 55 elementary schools would be held accountable for the performance of English-language learners. Currently, about 15 elementary schools with ELLs aren't on the hook for the outcomes of those students, he said.

With the waiver approved, the districts now face the tough task of putting this new plan into place and doing so in the face of some pretty strident opposition from their teachers' unions.

As originally drafted, CORE officials said that other districts in California would be able to join the waiver, but Duncan today said that the department would not consider allowing any others to be covered by the waiver for the coming school year.

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