Fresno Unified School District reapplies for 'No Child Left Behind' waiver

The Fresno BeeMay 2, 2014 

Fresno Unified and six other California school districts have again submitted a request for relief from stiff federal No Child Left Behind rules, despite the concerns of Fresno teachers union officials who say the organization spearheading the cause is pre-empting oversight power.

Districts hailed the one-year waiver, the first of its kind assigned to a group of districts rather than a state, for giving them flexibility from the federal law that relies on test scores to hold schools accountable.

The waiver gives districts freedom to develop their own achievement benchmarks and direct millions in Title I dollars once tied up in outside tutoring and bus services to other uses.

California doesn't have a waiver of its own -- the state's bid was denied in 2012 -- so the districts that won the reprieve last year have developed their own accountability system.

It's a "more illuminating" accountability model, said Fresno Superintendent Michael Hanson. Instead of only looking at test scores, CORE districts will take into account dropout and graduation rates and students' emotional and social well-being when scoring schools.

"We think this is too important an issue for us to let languish, for us to wait for Congress to take up the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind," Hanson said. "We would rather get busy on building something we know is a better model for our teachers, our students, our principals."

A governing board outside both the state and federal government's purview oversees the waiver implementation. The California Office to Reform Education, an Oakland-based nonprofit that helped write the waiver request, also helps supervise the process.

CORE Executive Director Rick Miller said the new waiver application has some tweaks, including pushing back by one year the timeline for districts to show improvement.

"Over the last year we've been working hard to better define how we'll hold ourselves accountable and ... submission (of the waiver), we think, is a great step forward in our system," Miller said. Hanson and Miller say they expect a response from the federal government by mid-summer.

But the waiver is not fully supported by those closer to home: Fresno teachers' frustration simmered for months, before a flashpoint came last month when Sacramento City Unified -- one of the eight CORE waiver districts -- announced it wouldn't seek the waiver for a second year. Fresno union leaders called the move a harbinger: if Sacramento school officials saw reason to pull out, they said, why didn't Fresno's administrators?

Fresno Teachers Association sent their message loud and clear in a pointed letter to district trustees in mid-April. The CORE waiver is partly responsible for stalling conversations over teacher contracts, the letter argued. Even worse, union officials say, the school board never voted on applying for the waiver or its renewal. Trustees Janet Ryan and Carol Mills and President Valerie Davis have publicly supported the waiver.

This week, teachers delivered a survey of 190 union members showing 97% are opposed to the district's relationship with the CORE organization.

"That is still a big concern that this private company is taking control of public education away from the elected officials of our communities," FTA President Eva Ruiz said. "The school board is allowing the superintendent to reapply for this without any official and formal action."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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