Photo by Anissa Thompson

Photo by Anissa Thompson

In what one State Board of Education member described as a “jaw-dropping” figure, California education officials estimate it could cost the state as much as $3 billion to meet conditions set by the Obama administration to qualify for a waiver of some of the most onerous requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Yet despite the staggering figures, the board at its meeting in Sacramento yesterday left open the possibility of applying for the waiver, while suggesting it would try to reach a more customized agreement with the federal government tailored to conditions in the state.

The estimates, outlined in a California Department of Education memo, may be the most detailed of any state of the cost of implementing the waiver. It also represented a notable exercise on the larger landscape of education reform. Often reforms are advocated, and even adopted, without detailed estimates of what it would cost states, school districts, or schools to implement them, especially over the long term.

State Board president Michael Kirst yesterday cautioned that any proposed reforms or programs in California need to be put through a “screen” that takes into account the state’s grim financial condition. “There are some things that can be implemented at virtually no cost, some things that have clear costs, and some have hidden costs that can only be extracted through careful analysis,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last August called the No Child Left Behind a “slow moving train wreck,” referring to  the impossible requirement that every child in the nation be scoring at a proficient level by the 2013-14 school year. Under the current trajectory, vast numbers of schools receiving federal dollars are likely to be labelled as failing to make “adequate yearly progress” as specified by the law.

Yet rather than simply granting states a waiver, the Obama administration has decided to impose a series of requirements on states wishing to get one. Those states that don’t meet all the requirements for the waiver, or decide not to apply, would still be required to enforce provisions of the law that the administration has condemned.

The requirements are similar to those established for states applying for the multi-billion dollar Race to the Top fund. In that contest, California, with one in eight of the nation’s public school children, didn’t even make it to the final round, squeezed out by many other finalists including the eventual winners Delaware and Tennessee.

Board member Yvonne Chan questioned the high estimate, suggesting that many of the items are initiatives the state would undertake anyway. However, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and department staff pointed out that the waiver requires that all changes be developed and implemented within 12 to 15 months. And the U.S. Education Department is not allowing states to write their waivers to fit their own needs.

“Ultimately we will need to make some of these expenditures, but not in the next 12 to 15 months,” Torlakson said. “We are still in a fiscal crisis.”

The California Department of Education’s goal was to provide “a reasonable estimate, not inflate the numbers,” said Chris Swenson, director of the department’s Improvement and Accountability Division.

“These are pretty jaw-dropping numbers,” noted board member James Aschwande—even as he queried whether the estimate might be low, saying there “might be some add-ons” that could raise the cost above $3.1 billion.

Another issue that came up was the advisability of making changes to meet the waiver requirements while Congress is considering new legislation—the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. NCLB is the current rendition of that act, and any reauthorization is widely expected to eliminate the 100% proficiency requirement in 2014 as well as making other important changes that could prove costly to implement.

However, Congress began considering reauthorizing the 2002 law in 2007, but the prospects of reaching agreement in a gridlocked Congress are not much greater than they were years ago.

Several representatives of education organizations who addressed the board said that instead of requesting a waiver the state should work with Congress to make sure that the new law will meet California’s needs.

Others suggested that California come up with a more “customized” waiver, particularly because Secretary Duncan has expressed an interest in working in a collaborative fashion with states. Board member Trish Williams (and former EdSource executive director) suggested that the staff look into it and present their findings at January’s meeting.

The federal government is allowing states to apply for waivers this month, in February, and “at the end of the school year,” which many interpret as June 2012. For California to meet the June deadline, Torlakson said, the state must develop a timeline by January to allow for public input.

Board members also asked staff to talk with other states that are considering waivers to see what they are doing. At this point 39 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico have indicated they might be seeking waivers.

“I continue to believe that the best answer for addressing a bad law [NCLB] is to replace it with a good one,” Torlakson said in a statement issued after the meeting. “However, recognizing the immediate need for relief among so many schools, the State Board will continue to examine the option of applying for a waiver in a manner that reflects the state’s priorities, timetables, and budget constraints.”

According to California Department of Education estimates, the costs of implementing the waiver requirements established by the Obama administration include the following:

  • Between a quarter ($237 million) and a half a billion dollars ($483 million) to implement the “Common Core standards” adopted by California and most other states, including “aligning” curriculum materials with the standards.
  • A quarter of a billion dollars ($237 million) for “Common Core” professional development for teachers.
  • Over one hundred million ($118 million) for “English learner standards and professional development” related to the “Common Core.”
  • Nearly $150 million for a range of activities that will need to be implemented in the 5 percent of the state’s lowest performing schools.
  • Nearly $600 million for “teacher collaboration” to build the capacity of the state, local districts, and schools to improve student learning.
  • $75 million to ensure that school districts implement teacher and principal evaluation and support systems.

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