The U.S. Department of Education has granted six California districts affiliated with the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law for another school year. The U.S. Department of Education announced the waiver extension in a letter on Friday.
Serving about a million students, the six CORE districts include three of the state’s four largest districts: Los Angeles, Long Beach and Fresno unified districts, along with San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Ana. A year ago, Sacramento City and Sanger unified districts dropped out of CORE, a nonprofit organization that member districts created to manage the waiver and share Common Core resources.
CORE’s waiver is the only one that the department has given to school districts; the others have gone to states. It exempts the districts from some of NCLB’s constraints and gives them flexibility to spend 20 percent of federal Title I funding – more than $100 million collectively – that they’d otherwise have to spend on hiring outside tutors and transporting students to better-performing schools. The districts also have latitude to create their own school accountability systems and decide how to turn around their lowest-performing schools.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan began issuing waivers three years ago, when Congress deadlocked over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as NCLB is formally known. With Congress still in a stalemate, 43 states and Washington, D.C., now operate with waivers.
California is not among them. Gov. Jerry Brown rejected the requirements that states use standardized test scores in evaluating teachers and that state governments oversee plans to improve their lowest-performing 15 percent of schools. The state’s two teachers unions and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson opposed CORE’s initial application.
“With this renewal, the CORE districts will be able to continue implementing their plans to promote innovative, locally tailored strategies to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity, and improve the quality of instruction,” Ann Whalen, a federal administrator for elementary and secondary education, wrote in the approval letter.
The CORE districts’ waiver is no longer designated “high risk,” which had brought more federal scrutiny.
“Overall, we are excited,” said Rick Miller, a former deputy state superintendent who is CORE’s executive director. “The waiver acknowledges the hard work districts have done to move the system along, and it gives us a path to improve.”
Some states were granted a multi-year waiver, and Whalen indicated the department would consider giving the CORE districts a longer extension if they complete work on their index for school accountability, called the School Quality Improvement System. The districts have completed a pilot test of the piece of the index, which included a parent and student survey of school climate and students’ learning mindsets, and will be sharing the results in November.
After that, CORE will submit the finished index to the Department of Education. CORE’s school index is similar to what the State Board of Education envisions for a multi-dimensional school accountability system, in which standardized test scores would be one component. CORE’s index includes academic performance in math and English language arts as well as the rate of improvement; graduation, suspension and absenteeism rates; and rates of reclassifying English learners.
The CORE districts have developed an extensive data system through the John Gardner Center for Youth at Stanford University, and they have agreed to share their schools’ results to learn from each other’s strengths and effective practices. CORE has also paired about 100 high- and low-performing schools both within and among member districts – a model of collaboration that the state board and a new state agency, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, would like to encourage to achieve school improvement.
The waivers for CORE and the states would terminate if Congress and President Obama pass a new version of NCLB. But a deal for a rewrite has been elusive. The Senate has passed a bipartisan version and, by a slim margin, Republicans in the House did, too, although conservatives are divided over what a new law should look like and even whether there should be a Department of Education. The sudden resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, effective next month, could further complicate attempts to reach an agreement.
The challenge of reauthorization may pass to the next president.
Meanwhile, the six CORE districts individually would have to implement a new teacher evaluation system in 2016-17 or potentially face losing their waivers next year. The six superintendents have agreed on the evaluation criteria, in which student test scores would function as a check to see if a teacher’s evaluation was consistent with students’ performance. The districts now have to separately negotiate the terms with their teachers unions, some of which have complained loudly that they’ve never been consulted on the terms CORE agreed to. Long Beach and Fresno are furthest along in the negotiations.
Though this year’s waiver came well after the start of school, the CORE districts expected approval. In June, an oversight committee, chaired by David Plank, executive director of the research center based at Stanford University, recommended that all six receive waivers after listening to reports on their progress.
Whalen indicated that the federal government would consider giving the CORE superintendents the authority in 2016-17 to extend waivers to other California districts that agree to all of the federal conditions. Large districts with sizable Title I funding or other districts drawn to CORE’s collaborative approach and data sharing might want to join, Miller said.
“This would truly give districts the choice for an option they didn’t have before,” Miller said.