New CDE tack on NCLB waiver would relieve both LEAs and state

After struggling for months to find a way for California schools to take advantage of the Obama No Child Left Behind waiver, state officials said Thursday they may have found a solution - petition relief under a separate, general federal waiver provision.

Section 9401 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act allows the U.S. Secretary of Education to waive any section of the act for a state that requests it and that also receives federal funds.

The idea, said Deborah Sigman, deputy superintendent over the District, School and Innovation branch at the California Department of Education, is to ask for relief from NCLB sanctions using that same general federal waiver section - instead of the process currently being offered by the U.S. Department of Education.

The general waiver section was, in fact, the same one used by the Obama administration as the basis for the existing NCLB waiver program.

We would be using the same waiver authority," Sigman said. "But we are suggesting a different way."

The proposal will come to the California State Board of Education at its March meeting in two weeks - and staff is recommending approval, with the final deadline for applications to the program expected to close sometime this spring.

Although there have been no formal discussions with federal officials about the novel idea, Sigman said there are a number of other states exploring the same approach.

As proposed, the state would be asking for specific flexibility in the use of 20 percent of their federal funds that many districts must set aside for tutoring and school choice. "We wouldn't ask that this money could be used for anything," she said. "Only on approved Title I activities.

"We are not asking for relief from accountability," she explained. "But from the sanctions which have become meaningless as a result of the target structure."

The board and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson have been torn on the issue since Education Secretary Arne Duncan first proposed the idea last summer.

Torlakson, a strong critic of NCLB, has asked Duncan to freeze federal sanctions that soon would cover 80 percent of California schools for failing to meet requirements that all students become proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Gov. Jerry Brown, the appointing authority for the state board, has been mostly quiet on the proposal - although a Los Angeles Times editorial reported the governor rejected the idea at a meeting with editors and reporters in November.

The problem with the waiver plan, as Torlakson has said, is the potential cost related to complying with Obama's conditions. The CDE estimated in November that complying with the waiver could cost between $2.4 billion and $3.1 billion.

Among the expenses are such things as new instructional materials aligned to college-career readiness standards; additional professional development for teachers; creation and implementation of a teacher and principal evaluation system, and student assessment and accountability costs.

Sigman said the state is very much committed to many of those same goals.

"We're hopeful that if they are serious about giving states flexibility and about letting states do what they know is best for their students - that we would be successful," she said.