Washington state loses school waiver

In the end, the subtle difference between the words “may” and “shall” could cost school districts across Washington millions of dollars.

The state’s waiver from accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act will not be renewed for the 2014-2015 school year, according to a letter from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on April 24.

The Department of Education had asked Washington state legislators to amend state law to require teacher and principal evaluations to include student test score growth.

The state has been operating under a conditional waiver from the federal law for the past two school years, but without the waiver the No Child Left Behind requirements — that all students reach proficiency in reading and math tests — will be required. Any public school that has a group of students not meeting proficiency, which educators across the state agree will wind up being virtually all schools (with the minimum number of students to qualify), will be required to set aside about 20 percent of their Title I funds they may receive from the federal government. The money is reserved for the district to either transfer students to a school that does meet the federal requirements or to pay for private tutoring.

In addition, parents whose children attend schools not meeting federal standards will receive a notice in the mail that their school is failing to meet those guidelines.

Title I funds pay for reading assistance at certain schools with significant populations of students receiving free or reduced meals.

In Sequim, both Helen Haller Elementary and Greywolf Elementary schools receive Title I funds.

Kelly Shea, Sequim schools superintendent, said Sequim set aside up to 30 percent of its Title I funds — about $170,000 of the $520,000 the district received for the 2013-2014 school year — to pay for transportation and private tutoring (20 percent) and professional development (10 percent).

“Next year, it’s not a detrimental impact (to Sequim schools),” Shea said.

On May 6, state superintendent Randy Dorn pledged support for the state’s lowest-performing schools that are in line to lose federal funding. (In Sequim, only Sequim Middle School qualifies but does not receive Title I funds.)

“I’m disappointed — but not surprised,” Dorn said. “There is widespread acknowledgment that NCLB isn’t working. Congress has failed to change the law at the federal level, so states are forced to come up with workarounds. Unfortunately, the teachers’ union felt it was more important to protect their members than agree to that change and pressured the Legislature not to act.”

State leaders point out that school districts like Tacoma would have had to set aside about $1.8 million — money the district used to fund preschool services at five elementary schools.

TPEP in action

At issue is the TPEP or Teacher and Principal Evaluation Project. Washington passed legislation requiring school districts to use a new evaluation system for all teachers and principals beginning in 2013-2014.

“It feels as if (this is a) business model,” Shea said. “What this is trying to do is get educational leaders to interact with educators so that it will improve teaching and improve student learning.”

School districts like Sequim already had an evaluation system in place, but with TPEP the process is more formalized, more stringent and more time-consuming. Superintendents evaluate principals and principals evaluate teachers in eight specific areas of conduct.

“It will help student learning,” Shea said, as teachers and principals come closer to synching what they collectively want students to know and do. “The professional dialog is very important to us.”

About one-quarter of teachers in classrooms in the district are on a full evaluation system, Shea said, while 75 percent are focusing on one or two criteria. By 2018, all educators will need to have a comprehensive evaluation, save for those who are not tradition “classroom teachers”; they will use the former evaluation system.

Shea said connecting student test scores to teacher performance may not be productive for school districts, particularly when the state system is struggling to recruit top-notch employees.

Changes at the state level

Earlier this year, state legislators authorized $97 million to begin phasing in a 24-credit high school graduation requirement (up from 20 credits) by 2015-2016, but passed on one House and one Senate bill that would have increased funding for K-3 classroom construction.

Education advocates are collecting signatures for a November ballot measure that would require 15,000 new teachers statewide to reduce class size. Initiative 1351 would require by 2018 that kindergarten through third-grade classes have no more than 17 students.

“Reducing class sizes is key to improving student learning, particularly with at-risk students,” Dorn said. “That, in turn, will improve graduation rates.”

Shea said the impact of enacting the initiative in Sequim would be simple: “It’s going to require us to build more classrooms. We do not have the space now.”

Sequim school district officials already are looking at adding classroom space in the form of portables to house full-day kindergarten and are expecting to be out of space for science classrooms once the new graduation requirements kick in.

Other state education groups disagree that decreasing class size is the most effective tool to improve student performance.

“Teacher and principal effectiveness has a greater impact on student learning than any other factor in a school system,” according to a July 2010 report from Partnership for Learning, citing examples from across the nation and focusing in on Washington. The report advocates implementing stronger teacher evaluation and tenure policies.

Fully funded?

In its January 2012 McCleary decision, the Washington state Supreme Court ordered the state to fully fund K-12 public schools as required by the Washington constitution.

Dorn and other state education leaders have expressed frustration that the state Legislature did not up with a plan to meet that requirement in the most recent session.

“There are two biennia left until the state must fully fund basic education,” Dorn said. “According to the Quality Education Council — a group the Legislature created to make funding recommendations – the Legislature is still about $7 billion short of meeting McCleary. There are only two biennial budgets remaining until 2018. Where will that $7 billion come from?”


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