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Calif. Seeks Its Own Version of an NCLB Waiver

By Sean Cavanagh

California is continuing to hold out on pursuing a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, citing its objections to the Obama administration's requirements of states that want that flexibility.

Instead, the state is considering asking federal officials for its own brand of flexibility from the law—without having to meet the administration's standards.

Twenty-six states plus the District of Columbia have met the U.S. Department of Education's second deadline of this week for submitting waiver requests, but California was not one of them. Eleven states have already been granted waivers by the department.

Rather than follow that route, California's department of education is recommending that the state ask federal officials for a more direct form of relief from NCLB—without having to go through the official waiver application process and without meeting the requirements attached to it—which state officials regard as unrealistic and cumbersome.

State schools chief Tom Torlakson wants federal officials to free the state from several of the law's biggest sanctions, including the requirements that struggling schools set aside money for supplemental education services, professional development, and transportation services related to school choice. Torlakson wants to instead have Title I funding made available for strategies more tailored to districts' and schools' individual needs.

Torlakson's plan will be presented next week to the state board of education, which will have the final say on the state's decision, said Paul Hefner, a spokesman for the state department of education.

"While we appreciate Secretary Duncan's efforts to provide states with relief from No Child Left Behind, we have grave concerns about the fiscal and legal commitments that the waiver package will require of our state," says a draft letter to federal officials from Torlakson and state board President Michael W. Kirst.

The state board could recommend changes to Torlakson's recommendation, Hefner said—or it could also vote to have the state go through the official process of applying for a No Child Left Behind Act waiver. The next federal deadline for doing so is in September.

California, like some other states, regards the Obama administration's requirement to establish a new accountability system as unrealistic, Hefner said. The state has already agreed to take several steps required by the federal government for waiver eligibility on its own, the spokesman noted, such as adopting college- and career-ready standards through the state's adoption of "common-core" academic standards. It has also joined other states in creating tests based on those standards, Hefner said. State officials believe overhauling the state's accountability system, at the same time new standards and tests are in the works, is too costly and makes no sense, the spokesman said.

California's pursuit of more direct relief is "the only avenue we could see that could bring us some immediate relief from the aspects of No Child Left Behind that are harming our schools," Hefner said.

Rather than forcing the state to comply with the law's mandates, or compelling it to pursue an official waiver with strings attached to it, California officials are urging federal officials to accept a "third option," Hefner added.

How receptive federal officials will be to the state's request remains to be seen. Duncan has previously warned states that he will enforce No Child Left Behind's provisions in the states that do not obtain waivers.

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