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Can Washington State Pass a Teacher-Evaluation Law That Gets Federal OK?

Lawmakers in Washington state—one of the four where a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act has been placed on "high risk" status—are cooking up a plan to deal with the U.S. Department of Education's concerns. The goal for the Evergreen State: hang on to the newfound flexibility and keep district control of nearly $40 million in federal Title I funds.

To make that happen, Washington's governor, Jay Inslee, and state chief, Randy Dorn, have floated a bare-bones outline of a first-of-its-kind waiver that may or may not fly with the Education Department.

Some background: To get off high-risk status, Washington must start gauging teacher effectiveness based on student growth on state exams—not district tests. Right now, districts in the state may choose either state or local tests to inform teacher evaluations. The Education Department has been unmovable—so far—in insisting states use only state-level tests in teacher evaluation. Supporters of the policy say it allows teacher data to be more easily compared from district to district.

Washington state lawmakers already tried to pass a bill that would meet the department's requirement—but it was shot down on the floor of the state Senate by a coalition of Democrats aligned with the state teachers' union and Republicans worried about federal overreach. (Sound familiar, Congress?)

Now leaders in the state have floated a plan that would call for districts to start using state exams for teacher evaluation in the 2017-18 school year, which is after the Obama administration has left office. Up until then, district assessments would be permitted, said a spokesman for Washington's education department.

The tentative plan, which is still being hammered out by state lawmakers, was floated on Inslee's website earlier this week. The pair came up with the proposal after Inslee and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan met to discuss a way forward.

Inslee's statement seems to indicate that Duncan is on board with the idea—or at least didn't throw cold water on it in his meeting with Inslee. "The legislation being drafted represents a compromise Inslee brought to ... Secretary Arne Duncan," says a press release outlining the proposal.

Here's the thing, though: Waiver states were initially supposed to fully implement their teacher evaluation systems—meaning gauge teachers performance on use them for personnel decisions—by the 2015-16 school year. The Obama administration has allowed states to apply for an extension, to the 2016-17 school year. The flexibility offered by the department so far has only applied to whether the evaluations are used for personnel decisions—not to whether the state gauges teacher performance using local or state tests, which is what Washington would be asking for under Inslee's draft proposal.

And note that, under the draft plan, by the time the schools in Washington state have to start using tests for accountability purposes, the Obama administration will be out of office.

Washington's waiver may not even make it through the legislature—the Washington Education Association is still skeptical of the plan unveiled by Dorn and Inslee. State Sen. Steve Litzow, a Republican who sponsored the teacher-evaluation bill that was defeated earlier this year, told me that lawmakers have put calls in to the federal education department to see what those officials think. So far, the department isn't tipping its hand, at least not publicly.

"We have yet to receive a request from Washington [State] with any proposed changes. As we would with every state granted [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] flexibility, we would review proposed changes within the context of the entire request," said Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, in an email.

So are Washington lawmakers tying themselves in knots and working around the clock, all to put together a waiver that may not cut the mustard with the feds in the end? We'll see.

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