Our Voice: Washington's lone stance on NCLB hurts schools

For the most part, Washington schools are already doing the thing that the country's top school official wants them to do.

But because they are doing it voluntarily, rather than under a legal mandate, our state is the first in the country to lose its waiver from fully complying with the No Child Left Behind Act.

That means school districts in the state no longer have control over how almost $40 million in federal money, mostly in the form of Title I funding, is spent.

The Legislature, at the Washington Education Association's encouragement, refused to require that teacher and principal evaluations be tied to student progress.

We understand the argument that since 2012, the evaluation system for principals and teachers already has been overhauled. And that some schools are seeing good results.

Regardless, NCLB says schools that don't meet federal achievement standards must notify parents that the schools are underperforming.

State Schools Superintendent Randy Dorn told the Herald that it is unclear exactly how many schools will have to send letters home to parents, but that it will be "a majority" of schools in Washington. State officials will know for sure after they review test results due out in August, he said.

In the letters to parents, underachieving schools that rely on federal Title I dollars must offer parents the opportunity to send their children to a different, nonfailing school -- even if none is available, according to a memo from the U.S. Department of Education. Many of those schools also will have to offer students additional tutoring.

To pay for those services, school districts must set aside 20 percent of the Title I money they receive from the federal government, which amounts to about $40 million statewide.

Most of Washington's teachers are working hard. They and their union object to the federal government's desire to micromanage the evaluations.

Perhaps this stance is an issue of pride; perhaps it's the teachers' way of saying "enough already." Certainly, a poorly designed evaluation system can unfairly punish good teachers saddled with bad students.

But refusing to comply with the federal requirements has cost state schools almost $40 million. Was is worth it?

Given what's at stake, we're puzzled by the Legislature's decision to capitulate to WEA pressure.

The one thing nearly everyone can agree on is that the No Child Left Behind Act is not working and needs to be reformed. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is working to making changes at the federal level and offering the waivers to states was designed as a stopgap.

Dorn also is a critic of the program. "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," he said.

But Dorn also has expressed his disappointment that the Legislature didn't take the action that would have preserved our state's waiver.

Forty-two states have complied with the requirements. Washington has not.

Washington schools are allowed to use test scores as part of their evaluations -- but not required to do so -- and many districts do so. The Legislature opted not to make this a requirement, giving a nod to local control and flexibility.

Yes, the system is broken. The waivers are temporary, not a long-term fix.

In the big picture, it's not a major part of school budgets.

But it's needed money -- money has be made up somewhere.