The nine California districts seeking a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act have gotten their foot in the door. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it has accepted their waiver application and will treat it as they would an application from other states, with a formal review.

Screen Shot 2013-03-26 at 11.12.43 PMGiven that the districts “collectively serve 1.2 million students – more than most states – we believe their request merits careful consideration,” the Department said in a one-page statement Tuesday.

The districts, which include three of the state’s four largest unified districts – Los Angeles, Long Beach and Fresno ­ – decided to apply for a district waiver from some of NCLB’s sanctions after the U.S. Department of Education denied California a state waiver last year. The districts applied through the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, a foundation-funded nonprofit that they created. They hope the waiver will be approved this spring to take effect in the fall.

The Department statement reiterated its “strong preference and focus … on working with states,” but noted that California has no waiver pending. Forty-five states either have received a waiver or have applied for one.

In implying that CORE met a size threshold, the Department may have been answering critics, including state superintendents worried about having their authority undermined. They questioned whether the Department was opening itself up to applications from any district in a state without a waiver.

CORE superintendents have met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and have discussed a district waiver with federal officials, who by now are familiar with CORE’s proposal. The Department statement said, “We commend the level of work and collaboration that the CORE districts have invested in their plan to date, and are encouraged by the positive discussion among state board members regarding CORE’s application.”

At their meeting earlier this month, the majority of State Board of Education members expressed enthusiasm for the district waiver; some said it could be the prototype for a state waiver. CORE officials were disappointed that a letter from State Board President Michael Kirst and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to the Department last week failed to convey the extent of that support and instead raised procedural and implementation questions. As a result, CORE sent along a transcript of the meeting to the Department, CORE Executive Director Rick Miller said Tuesday.

Miller said that while the Department’s statement was “a relief,” he would have been “shocked and disappointed” if the application had not been accepted, since Duncan and Department officials had indicated their willingness to consider a waiver.

Miller said he expects the peer review – an analysis by a group of Department officials, education advocates, officials from school districts and others – to be completed in two weeks, at which time their recommendation will go to Duncan. Duncan, in turn, could deny the waiver or require changes to conform with conditions for a waiver.

CORE’s application is distinct not only as a district waiver but also in its approach. Like other states, the districts must commit to high standards based on career and college readiness goals, improvement plans for low-performing schools, and teacher and administrator evaluations that use measurements of student growth. But instead of having a state agency monitor for compliance, the CORE districts are relying on interdistrict partnerships of teachers and staff and extensive data disclosure. CORE is proposing accountability measures of school climate and parent participation that go beyond test scores, and it wants to use standardized tests results from only the final grade at an elementary or middle school for accountability purposes.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson, the president of CORE, said Tuesday that he anticipates federal officials will have questions because the application is unique. “We would not expect it to be taken as written and approved,” he said.

Hanson also said he was “gratified but not surprised” that the application was accepted after months of work. It was a nod, he said, that the proposal “is worthy of more discussion.”

Other CORE districts, all unified districts, include Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Ana, Clovis, Sanger and Sacramento City.

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