Politics & Government

Fight continues over Washington’s No Child Left Behind waiver

A political battle that played out earlier this year surrounding Washington state’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act looks as if it will repeat itself come January.

Washington lost its waiver from onerous parts of the education accountability law in April, after the Legislature declined to bring the state’s teacher evaluation system in line with federal requirements.

Now, the state schools chief and some state lawmakers plan to try again in hopes of regaining the state’s exemption from No Child Left Behind.

They are likely to face intense opposition from the state teacher’s union, which lobbied heavily earlier this year against changing the state’s teacher and principal evaluation system.

Without a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law for the 2014-15 school year, school districts statewide had to redirect about $38 million in federal funding toward outside tutoring.

Most districts also had to send parents letters stating that their schools were failing to meet federal accountability requirements.

In a recent interview, state schools chief Randy Dorn said the Legislature’s failure to make changes aimed at keeping the waiver “hurt public education.”

“This was not helpful to kids. It was the wrong thing to do,” said Dorn, who leads the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

At issue during the 2014 legislative session was whether to require that student scores on statewide tests be used as one of many factors to evaluate teachers and principals.

State law already says that student test data must be used as part of teacher and principal evaluations, but school districts can choose which tests they will use: school-based, classroom-based, district-based or statewide.

After the Legislature failed to make using state tests mandatory, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pulled Washington’s waiver.

Dorn said he plans to push legislation next year that would say school districts must use applicable state testing data in teacher evaluations.

Also working on a bill to regain the waiver is Sen. Steve Litzow, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who sponsored similar legislation last year. The Legislature reconvenes for a 105-day session in January.

A spokesman for Dorn’s office said state officials are confident they can regain the waiver for the 2015-16 school year if they make the changes the federal government has requested.

“I think the indications from the Department of Education are pretty positive that if we do this change, we will get the waiver,” spokesman Nathan Olson said.

It’s unclear whether there will be more political will next year to pass a bill than there was in 2014.

The Washington Education Association focused its lobbying this year on fighting the proposed teacher evaluation changes. The union still opposes tying teacher and principal evaluations to state standardized test scores, spokesman Rich Wood said.

Losing the state’s waiver hasn’t changed that, Wood said.

“There’s absolutely no research that says mandating the use of state test scores in teacher evaluations helps students or teachers,” he said. “They’re talking about bureaucracy, not what’s best for kids.”

Wood said it’s time for Congress to update the No Child Left Behind Act, a 2001 law that set achievement standards that schools throughout the country have been unable to meet.

State lawmakers, meanwhile, should focus next year on fully funding basic education as ordered by the state Supreme Court, Wood said.

“That’s what needs to be the focus of this legislative session, not jumping through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops that don’t make any sense,” he said.