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California Seeking ‘No Child Left Behind’ Waiver

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Aired 8/26/11

California's superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson, is seeking a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind regulations.

California's superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson, is requesting that the state's schools be given a reprieve from the sanctions mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

“Relief is needed immediately before more schools suffer for another school year under inappropriate labels and ineffective interventions,” Torlakson wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

In his letter, Torlakson said 80 percent of the state's schools receiving federal money earmarked for economically disadvantaged students are on track to be identified as failing under the No Child Left Behind system.

In San Diego Unified School District, 83 schools are slated to enter or continue being listed in that failing category when schools open in September. Thirteen charter schools in the city have also been identified for sanctions, which are called program improvement.

When a school is sanctioned under the system, restrictions are placed on how the federal funding that school receives can be spent. Those restrictions are too onerous in California's current economic climate, Torlakson said in his letter. He said sanctioning more of the state's schools would harm their performance instead of improve it.

Nellie Meyer, San Diego Unified’s deputy superintendent for academics, said the restriction can hurt schools when they earmark funds for something the district already funds, like professional development.

“A school could conceivably have plenty of money in this particular pot,” she said, “but not enough money to pay for a teacher to teach a parallel class in math or English that might do a better job of helping that school exit program improvement.”

Many San Diego Unified schools and the district as a whole have been sanctioned under No Child Left Behind for the continued underperformance of certain student groups, like special education students or those learning English as a second language.

Meyer said it’s unlikely the overall scores for English learners, who make up about a third of the district’s students, will rise because high scores leave the group.

“Our English learners take a test to determine whether they’re an English learner or not and when they pass that test they’re no longer counted as an English learner,” she said. “That test is right below the proficient level.”

She said the district appreciates Torlakson’s efforts to increase flexibility for how the district and schools can use their reduced pool of funding for the coming school year.

Torlakson’s letter asked the Department of Education to maintain the failing school labels from the 2010-11 school year. That would keep any additional schools from being sanctioned and prevent the restrictions at already failing schools from increasing.

The education secretary announced the department would accept state applications for No Child Left Behind waivers earlier this month. He said states would have to agree to implement certain policies to qualify, including adopting college- or career-readiness standards and teacher and principal evaluation systems that took student test scores into consideration.

Torlakson’s letter indicated California would not be able to meet these criteria but noted he is working with legislators to develop a new accountability system for the state’s public schools.

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