State board approved three out of four ed waivers in 2011

School districts submitted nearly 900 applications for waivers from various elements of the state's Education Code in 2011 with the California State Board of Education granting its approval 75 percent of the time.

The numbers, released this week in a new report from the California Department of Education, are down from those posted in 2010 but still continue a dramatic multi-year upswing in activity that began with the onset of the economic recession.

Challenged by deep funding cuts and the need to keep pace with requirements that the Legislature was not prepared to relax, local educational agencies were actually encouraged by the Schwarzenegger administration to seek flexibility through the wavier process beginning in 2008. That same attitude has been largely embraced by Gov. Jerry Brown's appointees to the state board as well.

Indeed, Schwarzenegger's last year in office - 2010 - the state board considered 1,243 waiver requests, granting 87 percent of them.

Last year - Brown's first during his current term - a total of 893 waivers were sent to the state board for consideration and out of that, 670 were approved; 27 were denied and 106 were withdrawn.

No formal action was taken on 90 waiver requests - which meant that most were probably approved for one year as a result of board rules.

The CDE report on waiver activity represents the most recent formal accounting to date. The 2012 report will come out a year from now.

The total number of waivers filed in 2011 and 2010 dwarfed annual activity from prior years when typically no more than 400 requests were submitted. Expectations are that 2012 will prove another very active year for waivers.

Under state law, the board of education is authorized to waive most parts of the Education Code and the California Code of Regulations with the basic condition that the action does not undermine the basic intent of the law.

There are sections of the codes that districts cannot get a waiver from meeting - most of them deal with apportionments, school facilities and fiscal management.

As has been the case in recent years, the largest number of waivers submitted in 2011 was aimed at avoiding fiscal penalties that otherwise would be imposed on districts for exceeding class size limits. Forced to cut staff because of funding cuts, districts had no option but to raise student-teacher ratios even though the Education Code limits the ratio to 30:1 or less from kindergarten through eighth grade.

The law provides for financial penalties when a district's average class size exceeds their average class size in 1964 or the state's average at the time of the waiver request.

A total of 70 class size penalty waivers were submitted in 2011 and 61 were approved. That was down some from 2010 when 92 class size waivers were submitted.

A large number of districts in 2011 also requested relief from enhanced qualification standards on educational interpreters for the deaf. The requirements, which had been years in the making, caught many LEAs off guard beginning in 2009, when the state began enforcing a mandate that interpreters either have certification from a national registry or achieve a corresponding benchmark grade on one of three professional assessments.

Thirty-four waiver requests on the educational interpreters were received in 2011; 24 were approved, five were denied, and five were withdrawn. There were 109 in this category submitted in 2010.

Another active area for waivers in 2011 that was consistent with prior years relates to requirements tied to the Quality Education Investment Act.

QEIA, born out of a 2005 court settlement between the California Teachers Association and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, requires the state to provide about $400 million annually in additional funding to about 500 low-performing schools through 2013-14.

Under the terms of the program, enrolled schools are required to reduce class size by five students compared to the class size in 2005-06, or to 25 students, whichever is lower. The calculation is done by grade level, as each grade level has a target average class size based on QEIA Class Size Reduction rules.

In 2011, 48 districts submitted QEIA class size waivers - 39 were approved; one was denied; six were withdrawn and no action was taken on two.

This year, enrolled schools were required to exceed Academic Performance Index growth targets, averaged over three years - a benchmark that many QEIA schools could not meet. A large number attempted to avoid the mandate through the SBE's waiver process but virtually all of them were turned down.