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Six Questions About California CORE Districts' Waiver

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan provoked a lot of strong opinions when he granted a precedent-setting waiver under the No Child Left Behind Act to eight California districts last week. These "CORE" (for California Office to Reform Education) districts now have sweeping flexibility to implement their own accountability systems, separate from the state of California's, and the ability to largely police themselves with help from a new independent oversight panel.

There are many questions this waiver is sparking. Here are just a few of mine:

1. Will these districts secure collective bargaining agreements to implement new educator evaluations tied to student growth? This was a central reason the state of California could not secure a waiver—because they would not commit to new evaluations as the federal waivers require. In the case of the CORE districts, the local teachers' unions were not supportive whatsoever of this waiver application, charging it would create a "shadow" system of education, according to a highly critical letter. But according to the federal Education Department, the districts have committed to developing consortium-wide guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation still this month and adopting these guidelines by Dec. 1. What's more, the districts are supposed to pilot the new evaluation systems in the 2014-15 school year and implement them the following year.

In an email to staff after the CORE waiver was announced, Sacramento superintendent Jonathan P. Raymond wrote, "Finally, let me be clear that there is no component of this waiver that supersedes our collective bargaining agreements. The waiver calls for districts to begin discussions about creating new principal and teacher evaluation tools, discussions that must be had in collaboration with our labor partners." So given the union opposition, how likely is it there will be serious discussions? Some of the CORE districts have better relationships with their local unions than others, so this may likely boil down to local politics.

2. Will these districts immediately pull the plug on SES/choice? The most coveted flexibility in CORE's entire waiver involves about $150 million the districts were required to spend on tutoring and transportation for school choice—two "sanctions" under NCLB. These districts are no longer required to do that (nor are states that also got the state-level waivers). Sacramento has already decided to cut ties to SES providers, according to the superintendent's email to staff. But in Fresno, the superintendent indicated he would keep a few providers on board who are doing a particularly good job. After all, these districts still have to intervene on behalf of students in low-performing schools. It seems these districts are making the decision on a case-by-case basis.

3. What will be the effect of a school-grading system that puts nonacademic factors as worth 40 percent of a school's grade? The CORE waiver's weighting of nonacademic factors, at 40 percent, is significant. Certainly, many waiver states introduced multiple measures to gauge school effectiveness, such as ACT scores or participation in Advanced Placement. But the CORE waiver seems to give the most weight to nonacademic factors—an intentional move to approach accountability in a more holistic manner. Some of the nonacademic factors the CORE districts are including are easy to measure, such as discipline rates and chronic absenteeism. But how will the CORE districts go about measuring "noncongitive skills" such as student grit and tenacity? And will this grading system correctly identify the highest- and lowest-performing schools?

4. Will the new "oversight panel" provide enough oversight? My colleague Lesli Maxwell goes into great detail about how this new oversight panel will work. It was created to answer critics who charged these CORE districts would be in charge of policing themselves. But will this panel provide real, meaningful oversight—as a state would provide in the traditional accountability relationship? Furthermore, the oversight panel's authority (such as it is) is derived from a really squishy place. This new panel's power is not rooted in law, or state board regulations, but in a waiver agreement between the feds and these districts.

5. Will other districts apply? The CORE districts got a very special deal. They got out from under some of the most onerous restrictions of NCLB and got to design their own accountability system, outside of the state's, for federal purposes. Will other districts in nonwaiver states also want a similar sweet deal? Now that Duncan has opened the door, he'll have to figure out how to deal with and fairly judge other requests if they come in. Right now, he says none are in the pipeline. And, Council of the Great City Schools executive director Michael Casserly told me that districts in other nonwaiver states are waiting to see if their state ends up with a waiver before proceeding. If NCLB still isn't rewritten by Congress by the time the next president takes office (a likely scenario), then a new education secretary (perhaps a Republican) will have precedent to start doling out his or her own district waivers that could be based on very different policy leanings.

6. Will Duncan's decision have any effect, whatsoever, on Congress' efforts to rewrite NCLB? Back in February, a Senate aide said if Duncan goes ahead with district waivers, it will "make it that much more difficult to get any Republican to work with the department in good faith." It's not as if Duncan is pushing hard at all for reauthorization anyway. But this could give Congress even more incentive to rewrite the law and rein in the secretary.

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