Two years ago, Washington state promised to enact education policies favored by the Obama administration in exchange for a waiver from many of the requirements of the federal education law, also known as No Child Left Behind.
Forty-two other states received waivers, too, allowing the U.S. Department of Education to push its agenda while Congress stalls on renewing the law, which Democrats and Republicans dislike for different reasons.
Now, Washington may be the first state to have its waiver revoked because it didn’t go as far as the Obama administration wanted when it came to holding teachers accountable for their students’ performance.
“We fully expect to lose it,” said Kristen Jaudon, spokeswoman for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
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Gov. Jay Inslee and Randy Dorn, the state superintendent of public instruction, tried to persuade lawmakers to make the use of student scores on statewide tests a mandatory rather than optional component of teacher evaluation. But the state teachers union opposed it and the Legislature adjourned last month without making the change.
Washington expects an official decision on its waiver from the U.S. Department of Education by the end of the month.
Decisions about other states considered to be “at risk” for losing waivers — Oregon, Arizona and Kansas — will be made by the end of this school year, according to a DOE spokeswoman.
Broadly speaking, the waiver loss would affect Washington schools in two ways: They would lose control of how they spend a portion of their federal funding (roughly $40 million statewide); and it could mean that many districts and schools would be declared failing and possibly subject to remedies as extreme as state takeover or replacement of most of the staff.
Seattle, for example, expects that its schools would lose about $1.6 million, which instead would be spent mostly on individual tutoring from private vendors.
But no one knows exactly what will happen once the waiver is officially yanked.
“Because Washington is the first one, it’s all uncharted territory,” Jaudon said. “We really don’t know what this means.”
Meanwhile, the state has instructed districts to assume the state will lose the waiver and prepare next year’s budgets accordingly.
The money in question comes from Title I of the federal education law, which is aimed at improving the math and reading abilities of disadvantaged children.
Before the waiver, districts with struggling schools had to set aside 20 percent of that money to pay for individual tutoring from private vendors outside the district or to cover the busing costs for children who want to transfer from a failing school to a non-failing school.
The waiver gives districts more freedom to decide how best to spend that set-aside money to achieve the same goals of Title I.
Tacoma Public Schools, for example, has been using it to fund preschool in six elementary buildings serving about 200 students and to pay for instructional coaches who help teachers.
The district might keep that going, but it would have to find another way to pay for it, according to spokesman Daniel Voelpel.
The Seattle and Renton school districts use the flexibility to give students extra help at school, after school and during the summer.
With the waiver, Seattle stretched the money once devoted to private tutoring further, reaching about three times as many students (3,100) with help from certified teachers who match the tutoring with what’s going on in the classrooms, said Michael Stone, who supervises Title I spending in the district.
Next year, Seattle estimates it will receive about $10.5 million from Title I.
Without the waiver, the district once again would have to set aside about 20 percent for outside tutors and to bus any students who want to switch schools.
After other budget adjustments, the waiver loss will mean about $1.6 million less going directly to the schools next year, said Kevin Corrigan, the district’s grants director.
“The sky is not falling, but certainly it makes for a more complicated and less productive use of the dollars,” Corrigan said. “ I’m really kind of sad that we have to go back to this kind of nonsense.”
Whether a school is considered failing or not will depend on how the state and federal government sort out several unanswered questions.
Before the waivers, schools were measured on something called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward the goal of every child passing math and reading tests by this school year — 100 percent proficiency.
No Washington school district with enough students to report test scores reached that mark last year, so they would be considered failing if Washington simply reverts back to the old accountability system.
But under the waiver, Washington state switched to a new measure, called Annual Measurable Objectives (AMO).
Using 2011 as a baseline, the state figured out how far away all students as a group were from the 100 percent proficiency goal in reading and math as well as the gaps for each student subgroup based on race, income and disability.
Schools must be on track to cut those gaps in half by 2017 to meet AMO targets.
It’s unclear yet whether schools would be held accountable to the old AYP standard or the new AMO goals or some kind of compromise if Washington loses the waiver.
The answers to those questions will determine which parents get letters next fall explaining that their child attends a failing school.
John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @jhigginsST