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Analysis: Politics Could Affect LAUSD Waiver Approval

Alexander Russo | July 17, 2013

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Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 2.10.45 PMAs reported yesterday in LA School ReportLAUSD Superintendent John Deasy and others are in Washington today, making a final push to persuade the Obama Education Department to approve its revised application for a waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2002 federal education law.

Superintendent Deasy has said that a NCLB waiver would free up as much as $80 million in federal funding for other purposes.  Thus far, at least, neither Board members nor the local teachers union has been critical of the district’s pursuit of the NCLB waiver.

Publicly, at least, Obama’s education team has been signaling its support for the application, and the California Department of education is nominally supportive of the effort, too.

But there’s an unusually high level of conflict on education issues right now between Sacramento and Washington.  Conflicts between Washington and Sacramento — combined with objections from state and local teachers unions to certain requirements for waivers, and practical concerns  — could have some effects, direct or indirect, on whether LAUSD and eight other districts win approval from Washington to change some of the current NCLB requirements – or the final form of the waiver that is approved.

As Monday’s LA Times illustrated, State Superintendent Torlakson and Governor Brown have both been skeptical of the Obama education agenda, which includes evaluating teachers based in part on how students perform academically.  And Education Secretary Arne Duncan is increasingly frustrated with the state’s objections.

Torlakson and Brown aides “speak about the president’s teacher accountability plans with language a Texas official might use to describe Obama’s healthcare plan,” notes the Times.

Education Secretary Duncan is publicly critical of the state’s decision not to pursue a state-level NCLB waiver:

“There are about 300,000 teachers in California. The top 10 percent arguably are among the best in the world,” Duncan is quoted saying. “The bottom 10 percent maybe shouldn’t be teaching. No one in California that I have met can tell me who is in that top 10 percent and that bottom 10 percent.”

The first obstacle that LAUSD and the other California districts involved must overcome is the fact that what they’re proposing to do sets a precedent in which Washington gives a waiver directly to a district (or consortia of districts) instead of operating through state education agencies, as it usually does.

Washington bureaucrats generally hate creating precedents, and states generally object to having any of their power and oversight taken away from them.  It’s mainly for this reason that the national association of state education chiefs is opposed to district-level NCLB waivers, notes EdSource Today.

The second concern that must be addressed is the issue of creating two different sets of rules — and systems of oversight — for students in the same state.  It’s one thing for requirements to differ from one state to another, as they do under NCLB.  But under a district waiver like the one that’s being proposed, schools and teachers in LAUSD would be operating under a different set of federal rules than those in most of the rest of the state.

The creation of a two-tier system is the main reason that some civil rights groups have expressed concerns about a district-level NCLB waiver.

The third and most politically contentious issue is whether linking teacher evaluations and student achievement is a wise idea.  The Obama Administration thinks it is and has made it a requirement for states who seek approval for a NCLB waiver.  But state and local teachers unions generally oppose this approach, have heaped praise on Governor Brown and others who have joined them in their skepticism, and have criticized Deasy’s efforts to make student achievement part of teacher evaluation in LAUSD.

For the Obama education team, then, there are pragmatic and political considerations involved in its decision.

Giving LAUSD and other districts a waiver would show California what it’s missing by operating under the current version of NCLB, which most states have gotten waivered — and perhaps create pressure on the state to reconsider its decision not to continue to pursue a statewide waiver.

On the other hand, if Washington decides to give LAUSD and a handful of other districts their own waivers the White House runs the risk of worsening relations between Sacramento and DC. And approving LAUSD’s waiver application would anger state and local teachers unions, which are vehemently opposed to teacher evaluations linked to student achievement.

Obviously, Superintendent Deasy and his allies would love to return with a waiver approval in hand.  They have revised their application based on initial feedback from Washington, and somehow managed to keep a lid on objections from Sacramento.

But there are larger forces at play, and it’s possible that the Obama administration will decide against creating a new precedent — and angering powerful California forces — by giving LAUSD and the other districts a waiver.

Previous posts: CA Districts in DC for Final ‘No Child’ Waiver PitchDuncan Signals Support for LAUSD Waiver ProposalNew Concerns About LAUSD WaiverDeasy’s Secret Mission to Washington

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