Thursday, September 19, 2013

Testing Impasse - EDUCATION SECRETARY DUNCAN’S THREATS MAY BE MORE BLUFF THAN BULLY: “Virtually no chance of a drastic rollback in funding.”

By Tom Chorneau | SI&A Cabinet Report |

Thursday, September 19, 2013   ::  With Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan locked on a collision course over student testing, school officials and policy-makers in California are bracing for the Obama administration to make good on their threat to withhold potentially billions in federal funds.

Or, perhaps, maybe just thousands of dollars, if even that.

A survey of experts – many of whom have participated in similar disputes with the Department of Education in the past – say there’s virtually no chance of a drastic rollback in funding.

The far more likely penalty would be limited to some small portion of the $15 million in Title I money earmarked for administrative functions at the California Department of Education – much of which might be later distributed to school districts in California anyway.

“It would be crazy to punish the children for the political squabbles of the adults,” said David DeSchryver, an attorney and director with Whiteboard Advisors, an education consulting firm based in Washington D.C.

“So they won’t want to remove money that provides services to students,” DeSchryver said. “Instead they would withhold administrative dollars.”

As part of the state’s effort to transition from the existing system of instruction and testing to one based on new national curriculum standards, lawmakers approved late last month legislation that would suspend virtually all testing next year including those needed for federal accountability purposes.

AB 484, which Gov. Brown has said he will sign, drew quick rebuke from Secretary Duncan as the measure moved to the governor’s desk.

“Letting an entire school year pass for millions of students without sharing information on their schools' performance with them and their families is the wrong way to go about this transition,” Duncan said, warning that if the state moved forward, “as required by federal law, the Department will be forced to take action, which could include withholding funds from the state.”

Veterans of policy battles between the state and the feds – several of whom asked not to be identified citing the sensitivity of the clash – said Duncan might technically have authority to choke off federal education dollars coming to California. That’s about $7.2 billion when all programs are considered.

But there’s virtually no precedent for a dramatic sanction. In fact, recent history suggests Duncan’s play is little more than a bluff.

Less than 10 years ago, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger found himself sideways with the Bush administration as a result of a misalignment between the math standards being taught in middle school and the testing of eighth graders used for accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The complex and arcane dispute was first identified as a major issue by the U.S. Department of Education in 2005 and remained at issue three years later as Schwarzenegger attempted to resolve it – sparking a parallel controversy – by calling for algebra testing for all eighth graders.

The alignment dispute, like many others that states occasionally have with federal education regulators, provoked a series of threatening correspondences to California officials. Most of those letters including a reference to section 1111 (g)(2) of Title I, which authorizes the Department of Education to withhold all or a portion of a state’s Title I, Part A administrative funds.

In a letter to then state schools chief Jack O’Connell and former state board president Ted Mitchell, the Department of Education announced it would withhold $1 million in Title I administrative funds as a result of the state failing to be compliant. (See Cabinet Report, Jan. 23, 2009:

DeSchryver, who represented California in the 2009 algebra dispute, noted that there is an appeal process that states can pursue to challenge a monetary sanction. The problem is that the law is unclear, the process is difficult to navigate and made all the more complex by waiver options that the federal government have offered.

The million dollar fine that the Bush administration sought in the algebra case was eventually reduced, according to CDE, to only $50,000 – money that literally became invisible among the millions of dollars in Title I administrative funds that the state typically carries over year-to-year.

Observers say Brown is not likely to back down in the new fight with Duncan especially since the state won’t even become officially out of compliance until 2015. Add on the time that the state will have to appeal the fine and California would be theoretically on the cusp of being back in compliance based on the plan set out in AB 484 before the loss of federal funds would become an issue.

The problem for Duncan, said DeSchryver, is probably more of a political dilemma.

“California is essentially proposing to suspend the use of the assessment data for the purposes of accountability for the entire state,” he said, arguing that it would set a precedent Duncan cannot afford as voters are preparing to chose governors in more than thirty-five states – races where education and Common Core is likely to be an issue.

“If they let California suspend accountability it would create enormous political instability around the Common Core,” he said. “It could be a disaster for the Obama administration.”

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