Fresno, Sanger and six other California school districts will no longer have to strictly adhere to No Child Left Behind's accountability requirements, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Tuesday.
It's the first time that a group of schools -- rather than a state -- has received a waiver from the federal education standards. The districts -- part of the California Office to Reform Education, a consortium known as CORE -- join 39 states and Washington, D.C., which have already been granted relief from the law.
"Frankly, working directly with districts wasn't an easy decision," Duncan said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon. "We're not taking this up because it was simple, but because it was the right thing to do."
The California Teachers Association has lambasted the deal, saying it too closely ties student performance on tests to teacher evaluations. The teachers union has also said it was excluded from the waiver application process.
"By approving this waiver, Secretary Duncan once again demonstrates how his rhetoric that educators be actively involved in education change is just that -- rhetoric," CTA President Dean Vogel said in a written statement. "Not one of the local teachers' associations in the eight school districts was included in the discussion or signed the waiver application."
Eva Ruiz, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, did not return phone messages left Tuesday.
In May, CORE requested a reprieve from some of the law's toughest rules, which require that all students be proficient in math and English by 2014, among other things. Districts such as Fresno Unified were falling farther behind each year as the federal proficiency standard continued to rise. NCLB took effect in 2002.
The one-year waiver throws out those requirements, and in exchange the districts have promised to improve the way they hold themselves, teachers and students accountable. A 14-member oversight committee of state and local education leaders will meet twice yearly to evaluate each district's progress, said CORE executive director Rick Miller.
Districts will also get more wiggle room to use $100 million in federal Title I money, dollars that are currently designated for tutoring and other programs. The districts have also agreed to improve student achievement, including implementing a new federal standardized testing system under the Common Core State Standards by 2013-14.
Michael Hanson, Fresno Unified School District superintendent, said the timing is perfect: Removing the tough benchmarks comes at the same time low-income schools in California are getting more money under Gov. Jerry Brown's local control funding formula. He called the waiver "part of the puzzle" that helps align federal, state and local standards.
And the deal ultimately holds schools more accountable, not less, he said.
That's because the waiver adds a new formula to measure certain racial and socioeconomic subgroups that are now invisible on the state's accountability yardstick: It lowers the minimum number of students needed for recognition as a subgroup from 100 to 20 -- a move CORE officials say will shed light on how thousands of minority students are performing.
The other districts included in the waiver are Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento City and Santa Ana. Clovis Unified initially signed on but withdrew from the waiver request last month. Kelly Avants, spokeswoman for Clovis Unified, said the waiver would have added another layer of bureaucracy to the district's operations, which she says already have robust oversight measures.
Duncan made it clear Tuesday the initial waiver won't include additional districts within the first year.
CORE districts initially submitted their request to opt out of the Bush-era NCLB law after California's waiver bid was denied in December. In April, federal reviewers said they needed more details on how CORE schools would achieve their own requirements without state oversight.
The schools submitted a revised application in May that outlined an accountability plan called the School Quality Improvement System. That plan measures academic success based not only on student scores on standardized tests, but also on graduation rates, dropout prevention, and social-emotional and school culture.
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