What Will Happen to Washington State as it Returns to NCLB?

Washington is now the first state in the country to lose a waiver from No Child Left Behind, a law that required districts to take increasingly drastic steps to turn around struggling schools. What does that mean for next year?
by | April 26, 2014 AT 2:00 PM
President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law on Jan. 8, 2002. The White House/Wikimedia Commons

Most school districts in Washington State will likely have less control over how they spend money during the next academic year, and those that were already under sanction for failing to make progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law will face more severe consequences.

Washington just became the first state in the country to lose a waiver from the 2001 law, which mandated standardized testing and set annual growth goals called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The AYP provision required states to establish benchmarks for improvement on test results each year, with the goal of all students being proficient in both math and reading by the end of 2014.

In the meantime, schools that failed to meet AYP targets for two or more consecutive years were classified as “in need of improvement” and faced escalating penalties. The law required those schools to take increasingly intense actions for up to five consecutive years of failure to meet AYP targets, finishing with “restructuring,” which could mean wholesale layoffs or transferring control of the school.

But the law expired in 2007 without congressional reauthorization, and the Obama administration has encouraged states to apply for waivers that allow them to avoid AYP penalties and the 2014 goal in exchange for adopting policies favored by the Obama Department of Education, such as tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. Washington was one of 43 states to receive a waiver, but it never adopted mandatory teacher-performance evaluations, which the Department of Education cited in its letter refusing renewal of Washington’s two-year waiver.

Gov. Jay Inslee supported evaluations based in part on test scores, but the legislature—under pressure from teachers’ unions—voted against making them mandatory.

With the loss of that waiver, Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction will essentially have to return to 2011-12, the year before the state received a waiver. Officials will have to look at how schools performed under the AYP targets, and see where schools should have finished the 2013-14 school year. If a school was in year two of an improvement plan, it will enter year three, which requires some sort of “corrective” measure, such as replacing school staff or extending the school day.

“Basically, it would be as if the waiver never existed,” said Nathan Olsen, a Washington department spokesman.

But with the lofty 2014 goal of 100-percent proficiency in math and reading, a majority of schools are likely to start facing sanctions. Two or more years of “in need of improvement” status requires schools to give parents the choice of transferring their children to another school. Three or more years of probation requires schools to set aside funding for tutoring or other academic aid (run by outside providers) to help struggling students. Under the waiver system, districts have had greater flexibility to spend that money to help low-income students.

Officials estimate $40 million statewide next year will be restricted to corrective actions such as tutoring.

The main sticking point in Washington’s waiver trouble was the state’s teacher evaluation system. Two other states, Kansas and Oregon, have also been warned about the risk of non-renewal, in large part because the federal government thinks they’ve failed to live up to promises on tying teacher evaluations to test scores.

The Department of Education’s action signals to those and other states that the consequence of failing to meet the actions of a waiver—particularly in the area of teacher evaluation—will result in a return to No Child Left Behind and its prescriptions.

“There was an open question about states as to what would happen if they did not renew their waiver,” said Chad Alderman, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting firm. “There was speculation about whether [Education Secretary Arne Duncan] would try to make an extra waiver for ex-waiver states. With this action, he’s signaling No Child Left Behind is the fallback.”