The Department of Education issued a first-of-its-kind waiver on Tuesday that will allow eight California school districts to circumvent key requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. The department granted the districts, which together serve more than 1 million students, a one-year waiver from NCLB's accountability measures, such as a requirement that schools must bring their students to proficient levels in reading and math by the end of the coming school year.
In exchange, the eight districts – which include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach, Fresno, Oakland, Sacramento, Santa Ana and Sanger – must implement their own system of college-and career-ready standards, separate from the rest of the state, and will largely monitor their own progress.
The new accountability system, known as the School Quality Improvement Index, will be based 60 percent on academic factors such as student performance and graduation rates, 20 percent on a "social-emotional domain" that focuses on absentee, suspension and expulsion rates, and 20 percent on the "culture-climate domain," which focuses on how students, staff and parents evaluate school performance. The districts participating have also agreed to fully implement the more rigorous Common Core State Standards in the coming school year and implement assessments aligned to those standards by the 2014-15 school year.
California was denied a waiver in December because its request did not meet certain standards that the education officials deemed adequately tough. Gov. Jerry Brown and Superintendent Tom Torlakson refused to take on the statewide teacher-evaluation system that is in part based on standardized test data, for example. The districts submitted a separate request for a waiver in January as a part of the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE.
"All California schools deserve relief from the unworkable mandates of No Child Left Behind, so it's noteworthy that a few districts have — temporarily at least — managed to navigate the complex waiver requirements imposed by the administration," Torlakson said in a statement. "I continue to believe that Congress should make it a priority to revise NCLB, and that relief from the failings of federal policy should not be reserved only for those prepared to provide Washington an ever-expanding role in the operation of California's public schools."
President Barack Obama first gave states the option to apply for waivers in 2011, due to Congress's failure to amend or replace the law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Since then, the administration has granted waivers to 39 states and the District of Columbia, but this is the first time it has given a waiver directly to school districts.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the new accountability system will hold schools more accountable for the progress of certain student subgroups, such as minority students or those with disabilities. Under NCLB, schools are held accountable for the progress of these groups only when there are at least 100 students in that group at a given school. But under the districts' new system, that number is lowered to 20.
"The significance of their willingness to step up, and for the first time, hold themselves accountable for literally tens of thousands of children who were invisible under NCLB cannot be overstated," Duncan said in a statement.
Still, many critics of the move, including legislators and local teacher's unions, have expressed concern that the move will set a risky precedent for other districts.
Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, said in a statement that the move is "absurd, counterproductive and divisive" and sets up a new bureaucracy to oversee the districts.
"The CORE waiver distracts from the good work already in progress by local educators across the state," Vogel said. "This will create confusion for educators, students and parents."