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NCLB Waiver Effort by Calif. Districts Wins State Board Backing

The nine California districts seeking a waiver from parts of the No Child Left Behind law got a strong endorsement yesterday from members of California's board of education.

If approved by the U.S. Department of Education, the districts—known collectively as the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE—would operate under an entirely different school accountability system than the rest of the state. California's own attempt to secure a waiver from NCLB was rejected late last year by the Education Department, largely because the state did not embrace using student outcomes as part of teacher evaluations.

Members of the state board—all of them appointed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown—mostly expressed support for CORE's waiver request and for the districts' initiative in pursuing the flexibility, even as they posed questions about the proposal. The board has no power to change or block it from advancing to the federal Education Department for consideration, but having its support on record will only help the districts' case. The board discussed the CORE waiver proposal during a meeting Thursday that I watched online.

Carl Cohn, a board member who previously was a superintendent in Long Beach (one of the CORE districts) and San Diego, said the proposal "restores our state's reputation as a place of bold experimentation." Other board members expressed optimism that the district-level waivers could help pave the way for an eventual statewide waiver from NCLB.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has given signals that he is open to district-level waivers, though his preference is to work with states. The CORE districts—which include Los Angeles and San Francisco—collectively serve more than 1 million students in California.

What was less clear in Thursday's hearing is exactly where Tom Torlakson, the state schools chief, comes down on the CORE waiver proposal, which was presented by two of its member superintendents, Christopher Steinhauser of Long Beach and Tony Smith of Oakland.

Torlakson had written a memo to the board earlier this month highlighting a number of areas where he sees potential for confusion or clashes if there were to be two different systems of school accountability in a single state.

Among them:

• Even if the CORE waiver is approved, the state education department would still have to maintain and report required data elements to the federal education agency. Torlakson said that "some mechanism for transferring data will be needed." That's because CORE districts are proposing to use a third party to organize and display all their data related to performance;

• Lack of clarity around what entity would decide if a district in the CORE group falls short of meeting the requirements and growth targets that are part of the terms of the waiver; (CORE officials have said those determinations would be made by leaders in the participating districts who would be reviewing data together regularly and measuring if their fellow districts were meeting academic and other goals.)

• The state education agency says it will still need to apply annual measurable objectives (AMOs) to all schools in the state (even those in CORE) to identify their performance levels, resulting in confusion for parents and the public.

Board members, while mostly supportive of CORE, did press Steinhauser and Smith to explain what would happen if other districts want to become part of CORE's waiver—which Steinhauser and Smith said is a likely scenario. Board member Patricia Rucker also questioned whether the local teachers' unions were on board with the waiver proposal. Both superintendents said each district would collaborate closely with its local union to try and reach consensus around some of the thornier issues in the waiver, such as revamped teacher and administrator evaluations.

A staff person for Torlakson told board members they had until March 22 to weigh in on the CORE waiver proposal. On March 25, the application will start moving through the peer-review process.

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