August 6, 2013 4:05 PM EDT :: The U.S. Department of Education today granted an unprecedented waiver under the No Child Left Behind Act to eight California districts that together educate 1 million students, upending a long tradition of state-based school accountability.
The first-of-its-kind waiver essentially allows the eight districts to set up their own accountability system outside of the state of California's—and police themselves through their own board of directors. The districts known as CORE, for California Office to Reform Education, will operate under a new "school quality improvement index" that will be based 60 percent on academic factors such as test scores and graduation rates, 20 percent on social-emotional factors such as the absentee rate, and 20 percent on culture and climate factors such as student and parent surveys.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in announcing the decision today, said, "Frankly working with districts wasn't an easy decision." He said his department isn't doing it because it's "simple" but because it's the "right thing to do."
The final deal came together with lightning speed—just last Thursday, Duncan said in an interview that he hadn't seen anything from his team on the CORE waiver. But the clock was ticking for school districts as they planned for the fast-approaching 2013-14 school year. Under the existing No Child Left Behind Act, for example, districts needed to start signing contracts with tutoring providers. (Before today's announcement, there were nine CORE districts, but Clovis has dropped out.)
For districts, the most important flexibility this waiver brings is financial. A waiver will free up about $100 million in federal funds a year among the districts—money that's now locked up in providing interventions such as tutoring and school choice in schools that do not meet annual academic targets.
The CORE districts started pursuing their own waiver in earnest in January, after federal officials rejected the state's application in part because it didn't meet the requirements for implementing a new teacher-evaluation system. CORE officials came to Washington just last month for a final, in-person pitch.
Until now, states have been the only recipients of the broad NCLB waivers first announced by President Barack Obama in 2011—and only if they agreed to the strings attached, such as implementing teacher-evaluation systems linked to student test scores. In exchange, states get out from under key requirements of the NCLB law, such as that schools bring all students to proficiency in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Now, these eight California districts, which include Los Angeles, Fresno, and Long Beach, will have that same flexibility.
The Education Department previously has granted districts narrowly tailored waivers under NCLB, such as to serve as their own tutoring providers. But this waiver is unprecedented for its scope, and for how it changes the dynamic between districts, the state, and the federal government.
Granting such a waiver is a risky move for a federal department that is already trying to manage an enormous portfolio of grants and programs—from billions of dollars in Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grants to a hodgepodge of new accountability systems that are emerging in the 39 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have waivers.
What's more, this waiver could open the door for other districts that want their own tailor-made waiver. At a minimum, the department might have to deal with the administrative burden of fielding inquiries and even applications from other districts.
There also are political implications. Duncan's decision will at least mildly annoy—or even infuriate—some state schools chiefs who have warned that district waivers would "undermine" state authority. (California state officials only gave a tepid endorsement of the CORE plan.)
The list of critics is longer than just state chiefs. Civil rights groups, including the Education Trust and Democrats for Education Reform opposed the CORE waiver, warning that different expectations for students across the same state can often lead to "lowered" expectations. They argue that the key to improving student performance is a strong state accountability system. (California DFER is supportive of the CORE waiver, however.)
The local teachers' unions in California also opposed the application, calling the new accountability system a "shadow system of education."
Many in Congress, particularly Republicans, aren't thrilled with Duncan's overall direction on waivers, either. On district waivers specifically, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has been most critical. And U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the House education committee chairman, isn't happy about this either. He said today, in a statement, "As if state waivers weren't convoluted enough, the administration has now decided to move forward with district-level waivers. One can only imagine the confusion this creates for families, teachers, and state and local education leaders."
On the flip side, however, Rep. George Miller, D-California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, is very supportive.