This story was updated on May 7 to include action and comments by the State Board of Education.
The State Board of Education isn’t giving up on the hope that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan might grant California at least a partial waiver from the No Child Left Behind law that he has given to 43 other states.
At its meeting on Thursday, the state board voted to request that the U.S. Department of Education give school districts more authority to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in Title I funding for poor children on after-school or summer programs in math and English language arts. Districts currently must use that money – equal to 15 percent of their Title I funding for low-income students – on private tutoring companies over which districts have no control. Districts also must notify parents in low-performing schools of their right to transfer their children to better schools and must allocate 5 percent of Title I dollars to bus children to the new schools. Under the draft waiver proposal, districts could put unused transportation money toward district-run after-school and summer programs. The state is planning to seek a four-year waiver, starting this fall.
“The use of private providers is not necessarily the best way to provide supplemental services (tutoring),” state board President Mike Kirst said Monday. After-school and summer programs would be better aligned to what’s being taught in the classroom. “I believe districts would be more effective with flexibility” in raising student achievement, he said.
Duncan started giving state waivers to NCLB in 2011, after a deeply divided Congress could not agree on changes to reauthorize the law. That remains the case, and so the law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, limps along as written in 2002 with flaws that both Republicans and Democrats agree should be fixed, although they disagree over how to do so. It’s unclear whether a bipartisan majority will come together to rewrite it before President Barack Obama leaves office.
Meanwhile, Duncan has given Title I flexibility and waivers from some of NCLB’s penalties to all but seven states. California last sought a waiver three years ago, but Duncan denied it because Gov. Jerry Brown and the state board refused to agree to several conditions, including a requirement that school districts include standardized test scores as a significant component in evaluating teachers. That would have required the Legislature to amend state law to mandate using test scores, which Brown and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson opposed.
Since then, eight California school districts, which formed the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, did agree to the conditions and received the nation’s only waiver given specifically to school districts. The districts (now six after Sacramento City Unified dropped out and Sanger Unified is not reapplying) include some of the state’s largest unified districts: Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, Santa Ana, San Francisco and Oakland. CORE’s application to continue the waiver is now pending.
States with a waiver no longer have to meet the demands of Annual Yearly Progress, the law’s requirement that all students, with few exceptions, score at grade level in English language arts and math on state tests. Schools with less than 100 percent of students scoring at proficiency are designated “schools in need of improvement” and must notify parents of that status and allow them to send their children to better-performing schools. They also must commit 15 percent of Title I funding for students to receive tutoring from a list of providers approved by the state Department of Education.
The department cited a federal audit that found cases of fraud and corruption by tutoring providers and noted that it also received unspecified complaints of “inappropriate practices” of providers.
The state board is asking only for a narrowly tailored waiver from the Title I private tutoring and school choice requirements. Districts would continue to notify parents whether their schools failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress status. At this point, that would consist of nearly all schools in the state receiving Title I dollars.
Districts currently are prohibited from advising parents which tutoring companies they know to be most effective. Parents can choose any tutor from an approved state list. Under the waver, districts could continue to contract with tutors that they deemed effective. Board member Patricia Rucker said she would be surprised if districts didn’t continue to work with tutors that have served students’ needs.
Kirst said that the state is currently creating a new accountability system, based on broad measures of student achievement, and so is not willing to commit to a system of school reforms that Duncan has demanded for a full-fledged waiver.
Not including the CORE districts, California districts had to set aside nearly $400 million in Title I funding for tutoring and transportation over the past three years, according to the proposed waiver request.
In making the case for the waiver, the state Department of Education referred to national research that had found that private tutoring with Title I money has failed to raise student achievement. In addition, the department cited a federal audit that found cases of fraud and corruption by tutoring providers and noted that it also received complaints of “inappropriate practices” of providers that include “falsifying enrollment, attendance, and invoice documents; students not receiving services; parents/guardians and teachers not receiving feedback on the academic progress of students; and questionable marketing practices.”
Several letters from districts reinforce the state’s case for a waiver. The tutorial services, wrote Joilyn Campitiello, an administrator from the Duarte Unified School District, “are sporadic and ineffective. Only a small percentage of our parents take advantage of this service, and those that do often do not continue with the programs.”
In comments at the state board meeting, administrators from several districts elaborated on their bad experiences. Robin Bourbonnais, tutoring coordinator for the Riverside Unified School District, said that problems have gotten worse. She said she has seen invoices for nonexistent students and tutoring that never took place and instances of parents’ forged signatures. “My full-time job is detective work,” she said. “The $1.3 million that the district sets aside for tutoring could be better spent extending the school day.”