Torlakson, Kirst write letter supporting nine-district NCLB waiver

March 22, 2013

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and State Superintendent Tom Torlakson expressed support Friday for nine districts’ application for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. In letter to the U.S. Department of Education, they also raised questions about how the waiver would be implemented and enforced.

While stating that they would have preferred that Congress revise NCLB (or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as it’s formally known), which they called a failure, Kirst and Torlakson wrote that “absent such action by Congress we are supportive of any attempt that will grant California’s local education agencies the relief they need.”

The CORE waiver proposal is based on three principles: 1) College- and career-ready expectations for all students, 2) State developed differentiated recognition, accountability and support, and 3) Supporting effective instruction and leadership. Source: CORE PowerPoint (Click to enlarge).

The districts, serving more than 1 million students, have formed a nonprofit organization, the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE. They submitted a unique request for a multi-district waiver, because the federal government last year rejected California’s application for a state waiver. A waiver would give the districts flexibility to use more than $100 million of federal Title I money for low-income children and to propose creative ways to improve their lowest performing schools. It would also free them from other NCLB penalties, such as notifying parents that their schools are failures. The nine unified districts are Los Angeles, Fresno, Long Beach, San Francisco, Clovis, Sanger, Sacramento City, Oakland and Santa Ana.

Torlakson and the State Board have no power to rule on a district waiver but they can advise the federal Department of Education, which will decide whether to grant it. At their meeting last week, members of the State Board authorized Kirst and Torlakson to summarize their discussion of the plan. In their letter, Kirst and Torlakson noted, “Board members expressed enthusiasm for the CORE districts’ efforts to design an innovative waiver based on agreements they hope to make at the local level.”

Other than that one line, the letter didn’t convey why the majority of the board said they favored a district waiver during their one-hour discussion (see EdSource Today coverage of the meeting). The bulk of the letter focused on three areas of uncertainty that Kirst and Torlakson had raised at the meeting. They questioned:

In an interview Friday, Kirst said that the letter “was meant to be helpful” to the CORE application. It “was not a critique of the substance of the proposal but instead raised questions that the state would face if the waiver was approved.”

Noting that the CORE superintendents also expressed their preference for a state waiver, Kirst and Torlakson wrote they would continue to “explore options” for one with federal officials. So far, 45 states either have received a waiver or have applied for one. The last deadline for applying was in February. Kirst said he had not given up hope that the state could still obtain a state waiver to take effect this fall, although he acknowledged that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has not indicated that he’d still be open to  granting one to California.

Kirst said that the state was not competing with the districts seeking a waiver. “We are not trying to impede it in any way,” he said.

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