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U.S. Department of Education Grants California Districts' CORE Waiver

UPDATED

The U.S. Department of Education granted an unprecedented waiver Tuesday under the No Child Left Behind Act to eight California districts that together educate 1 million students, upending a long tradition of state-based school accountability.

The first-of-its-kind waiver, good for one year, essentially allows the eight districts to set up their own accountability system outside of the state of California's—and largely police themselves through their own board of directors. The districts known as CORE, for California Office to Reform Education, will operate under a new "school quality improvement index" that will be based 60 percent on academic factors such as test scores and graduation rates, 20 percent on social-emotional factors such as the absentee rate, and 20 percent on culture and climate factors such as student and parent surveys. The CORE districts are Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Sanger and Santa Ana.

The districts did create a new, separate oversight board, which will include a cross-section of stakeholders from the education community that will meet biennially, that will serve as "an unbiased external compliance review of each district's progress." For more from the district angle, see my colleague Lesli Maxwell's post over at District Dossier.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in announcing the decision in a call with reporters today, said, "Frankly, working with districts wasn't an easy decision." He said his department isn't doing it because it's "simple" but because it's the "right thing to do."

According to the approval letter written by federal officials, the CORE waiver can be renewed next year only if the districts fully implement their school-rating system and teacher-evaluation plans. The department must then approve both systems.

The final deal came together with lightning speed—just last Thursday, Duncan said in an interview that he hadn't seen anything from his team on the CORE waiver. But the clock was ticking for school districts as they planned for the fast-approaching 2013-14 school year. Under the existing NCLB law, for example, districts needed to start signing contracts with tutoring providers. (Before today's announcement, there were nine CORE districts, but Clovis has dropped out.)

For districts, the most important flexibility this waiver brings is financial. A waiver will free up about $150 million in federal funds a year among the districts—money that's now locked up in providing interventions such as tutoring and school choice in schools that do not meet annual academic targets.

Duncan, in the call, said one of the most important components of this waiver application is that no longer will thousands of students be "invisible" as they are under NCLB. The "n" size in California—which is how big a subgroup of students needs to be for its test scores to count for school accountability purposes—is 100. For CORE, it's been lowered to 20.

The CORE districts started pursuing their own waiver in earnest in January, after federal officials rejected the state's application in part because it didn't meet the requirements for implementing a new teacher-evaluation system. CORE officials came to Washington just last month for a final, in-person pitch.

Until now, states have been the only recipients of the broad NCLB waivers first announced by President Barack Obama in 2011—and only if they agreed to the strings attached, such as implementing teacher-evaluation systems linked to student test scores. In exchange, states get out from under key requirements of the NCLB law, such as that schools bring all students to proficiency in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Now, these eight California districts, which include Los Angeles, Fresno, and Long Beach, will have that same flexibility.

"We are trying to hold ourselves to an even greater accountability system," said Christopher Steinhauser, superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, in the call.

The Education Department previously has granted districts narrowly tailored waivers under NCLB, such as to serve as their own tutoring providers. But this waiver is unprecedented for its scope, and for how it changes the dynamic between districts, the state, and the federal government.

"I'm shocked," said Andy Smarick, a partner for Bellwether Education Partners in Washington. "For the secretary to unilaterally dispense with 30-plus years of state-led accountability is incredible."

Others disagree.

"The Council of the Great City Schools is in complete agreement with Secretary Duncan in his approval of the district waiver application submitted by CORE. The approval is within his authority and does not undermine state authority in any meaningful way," said the council's executive director, Michael Casserly.

Granting such a waiver is a risky move for a federal department that is already trying to manage an enormous portfolio of grants and programs—from billions of dollars in Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grants to a hodgepodge of new accountability systems that are emerging in the 39 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have waivers.

What's more, this waiver could open the door for other districts that want their own tailor-made waiver. At a minimum, the department might have to deal with the administrative burden of fielding inquiries and even applications from other districts. Right now, however, Duncan said he doesn't foresee any other districts applying.

There also are political implications. Duncan's decision will at least mildly annoy—or even infuriate—some state schools chiefs who have warned that district waivers would "undermine" state authority. (California state officials only gave a tepid endorsement of the CORE plan.)

"The U.S. Department of Education's decision to approve the California district CORE Waiver marks an unprecedented shift in the federal role in education—clearly usurping state leadership," said CCSSO Executive Director Chris Minnich in response to today's announcement.

The list of critics is longer than just state chiefs. Civil rights groups, including the Education Trust and Democrats for Education Reform opposed the CORE waiver, warning that different expectations for students across the same state can often lead to "lowered" expectations. They argue that the key to improving student performance is a strong state accountability system. (California DFER is supportive of the CORE waiver, however.)

The local teachers' unions in California also opposed the application, calling the new accountability system a "shadow system of education."

Many in Congress, particularly Republicans, aren't thrilled with Duncan's overall direction on waivers, either. On district waivers specifically, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has been most critical. He said today this turns the Education Department into a "national school board" with districts lining up playing the old playground game "Mother May I?".

And U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the House education committee chairman, isn't happy about this either. He said today, in a statement, "As if state waivers weren't convoluted enough, the administration has now decided to move forward with district-level waivers. One can only imagine the confusion this creates for families, teachers, and state and local education leaders."

On the flip side, however, Rep. George Miller, D-California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, is very supportive. He said today, in a statement, "The approval of the CORE waiver application will provide the opportunity for more than a million students in California to break away from the most rigid requirements of NCLB that do little to ensure that all children are learning. I applaud CORE's leadership in providing a student-centered vision for education in their districts, and I believe this action will provide the whole state an exciting opportunity to pilot new reforms and learn from some of the leading districts in California and the nation."

And Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, called the CORE waiver "necessary" but not "ideal."

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