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Seattle Wants Its Own No Child Left Behind Waiver

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave the greenlight to a coalition of California districts to get their very own waiver from many of the requirements of the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act, state officials weren't too happy—there was a lot of speculation that districts all around the country would seek similar deals.

And now, Seattle, the largest school district in Washington state—a state that saw its waiver yanked over teacher-evaluation issues earlier this year—has put in its own flexibility request to the feds. Under Seattle's proposal, the district would get to keep an accountability system that closely mirrors the one it had just a few months ago, before Duncan yanked the state's waiver.

That would allow the district to target the most dramatic interventions to its lowest performing schools—and free up money that the district would otherwise have to spend on outdated NCLB remedies for low-performing schools—tutoring and public school choice.

If Seattle gets the go-ahead from Duncan, it would be the very first individual district in the country to get its very own waiver.

In making its case, Seattle points out that Washington state lost its waiver because the state legislature refused to amend a law that allowed school districts to choose whether to use local or state assessments in teacher evaluations. The feds want everyone to make state scores a "significant" part of educator evaluations, and that those evaluations inform personnel decisions, such as hiring and firing.

But Seattle isn't one of the districts that shies away from using state tests—they've been a part of the district's evaluation system since 2010, according to district officials. Teachers with a low growth rating are placed on an improvement plan and given extra help, it's not neccessarily considered punitive. Seattle has even been getting money from the feds, through the Teacher Incentive Fund, to implement its system. More on how that's playing out here

Iowa Coalition

And Seattle isn't the only school district with its eye on a waiver. A coalition of Iowa school districts is readying its own request for a different kind of waiver, one that doesn't include all of the components of the Obama administration's NCLB waivers, currently in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia, as well as in the California CORE districts.

The state of Iowa applied for a waiver back in 2012, but its request was rejected.

The Hawkeye state districts are asking for something pretty different from both Seattle and the California districts. They aren't seeking big changes to the accountability system at the center of the NCLB law—what they want is the chance to get out from under the requirement to set-aside 20 percent of Title I funds for tutoring and school choice. That's something that nearly all of the 42 states and the District of Columbia, plus the California districts, got along with their NCLB waivers.

Giving districts access to those coveted funds is arguably the number-one reason that any state would go after one of the department's NCLB waivers in the first place. It's tough to say whether the Iowa districts would be allowed to get one of the most obvious benefits of a waiver without having to embrace the Obama administration's priorities on teacher evaluation, standards, and assessments—changes that haven't been easy to make in a lot of states.

But the Iowa districts make the case that choice and tutoring aren't really doing much to improve student outcomes—they think they can do a better job of moving the needle on student achievement if they're allowed to have free reign over those funds. And they're willing to back up their claims, reporting how the waiver has impacted student achievement, including for kids in subgroups.

The Iowa districts also make the case that their waiver would help a lot of kids, which seemed to be one of the most persuasive arguments the California districts made in going after their own waiver. They point out that the waiver would serve more than a quarter of Iowa's students, and more than 50 percent of the kids in the state who qualify for free-or-reduce priced lunch. 

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