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CORE Districts Have Waiver Renewed, Shed 'High Risk' Label

The only district-level waiver from many of the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act will be around for at least one more year: The U.S. Department of Education has extended the so-called CORE districts' waiver—and taken them off "high risk status."

A lot of folks—especially state chiefs and the civil rights community—were really unhappy when the department approved the CORE waiver back in 2013. State officials worried that the department was trampling on California's authority by allowing a group of districts to have their own deal with the feds. And civil rights groups worried that the waiver would be hard to oversee. (There are some technical differences between the CORE waiver and state waivers. More on that below.)

Last year, it seemed those doubters may have had a point: The department told the CORE districts they were at risk of losing their waiver, partly because of teacher-evaluation issues and delays with the districts' system for gauging school progress.

The CORE districts are: Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, and Santa Ana Unified School Districts. (That's two fewer districts than were part of Team Core Waiver back in 2013. Sacramento dropped out, in part because its teachers' union became increasingly unhappy with the evaluation portion of the waiver. And Sanger Unified opted not to join the renewal application.)

The CORE waiver is special for reasons that go beyond its district-only structure: The CORE districts were among the first to experiment with using socio-emotional factors in their accountability system. That's an idea that seems likely to catch on, particularly if states are given a lot more running room under a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

And the districts have gotten creative when it comes to school turnarounds, by essentially using the buddy system. The districts allow low-performing schools the chance to partner with better-performers, with similar demographics and challenges.

For those keeping score: South Dakota is now the only waiver recipient that's at risk of losing its flexibility. (The state is protesting its high-risk designation, though.) And so far, the department hasn't allowed any other district—or group of districts—to bypass the state and get their very own waiver, even though Seattle tried.

What's more, the department has now renewed waivers for 39 states and the District of Columbia. Still waiting in the waiver wings: Colorado, Louisiana, and Texas.  (Illinois is on a different schedule because it got its waiver so late in the game.)

It doesn't seem like the department is in a waiver-pulling mood these days. But if it were, Texas would seem like a good bet for revocation. The Lone Star State made it very clear it wasn't going to go along with the department's vision on teacher evaluation.

For you technically minded folks out there: The CORE districts' waiver is not exactly the same as a traditional, state-level NCLB waiver. Like states, the districts get to have their own accountability system; instead of going with adequate yearly progress, they get some wiggle room on the law's "highly qualified teacher provision," and they can get access to Title I money that's typically set aside for choice and tutoring. The big difference between the set of waivers that the CORE districts are implementing and a traditional NCLB waiver is that the districts are granted waivers of slightly different provisions of the law than the states that are implementing ESEA flexibility.

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