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Waiverless Washington State's Request for New NCLB Flexibility Denied

Washington state can't seem to catch a break these days when it comes to No Child Left Behind Act waivers.

The Evergreen State is already the first (and so far, the only) state to lose its NCLB flexibility, and return to accountability provisions of the outdated NCLB law. And now the U.S. Department of Education has rejected Washington's request to get from under a key requirement of NCLB: notifying parents in writing if their school is failing to meet the law's achievement targets known adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

The letters are supposed to inform families of their schools "failing status" and give kids the chance to transfer to a better-performing school in the same district. 

Under NCLB, all students are supposed to be nearing proficiency by the 2013-14 school year, or last school year. Practically speaking, that means that most schools in Washington state are going to be considered "failing," so the vast majority parents will be getting these letters, argued Randy Dorn, the superintendent of public instruction, in asking for the waiver last month.

What's more, he contended, there won't be many "better-performing" schools with transfer slots available, since very few schools will actually make AYP. 

That argument didn't fly with Deb Delisle, the federal department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. In a letter sent July 18, she rejected Washington's request and noted that the letters serve other purposes, namely explaining to parents why the school is failing to meet its goals and sketching out its plan for improvement.

Delisle wasn't totally without sympathy, however, noting that the transition from waivers back to NCLB is "not simple." And she threw the state a bit of a consultation prize, allowing Washington to get out of sending letters to parents of children whose schools could be newly identified as not making AYP in 2014-15, and those that are on a trajectory to start meeting achievement targets in 2014-15. (Read Delisle's response to Washington state.)

Dorn told the Associated Press he never really expected the feds would approve his request, but he made the ask anyway, due to pressure from state lawmakers and others. 

Washington state became the first to lose its waiver back in May, because of a state law that allows its school districts to choose to use either state or local tests to inform teacher evaluations. That flies in the face of the Obama administration's requirements for waivers, which call for every district to include student achievement on state assessments as part of educator evaluations. Dorn and others pushed the state legislature to change the law, to no avail. 

Why this matters outside Washington state: It's clear the department isn't willing to cut Washington, the very first ex-waiver state, any slack. That serves a warning to other states that may be on the verge of losing their flexibility.

Why this matters inside Washington state: It's hard to tell from Delisle's letter, but this could actually be really helpful to Dorn and others in the state who want the teacher-evaluation law to change. After all, parents aren't going to be too thrilled to get a letter saying their child's school is labeled a failure. They may put pressure on their state representatives to change the teacher-evaluation law, giving Washington a shot at having its waiver restored. 

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