Torlakson: CA could join NCLB revolt

Along with a growing number of education leaders nationwide - Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, said he would consider abandoning compliance with federal performance mandates if relief from No Child Left Behind sanctions is not otherwise provided by federal officials.

Torlakson, who earlier last week sent a sharp rebuke of NCLB to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, said in an interview Friday with Cabinet Report that NCLB was a law that had outlived its usefulness and that the nation's schools needed Congress to undertake a complete revision of the law.

"I think there is a consensus to leave behind, No Child Left Behind," Torlakson said. "And to leave behind the (Annual Yearly Progress) which is a failed system and put in a new one that would be based more on the growth model that we use here in California."

Governors and state school officers from around the country have been inundating Duncan with requests for relief from federal proficiency targets aimed at getting all students proficient in math and reading by 2014 - targets that some of the nation's best-run public schools are finding almost impossible to keep up with.

Also critical of NCLB, the Obama administration has been unsuccessful in pushing Congress to undertake a reauthorization effort. But as a political tactic, Duncan has offered to provide relief to states through a waiver process, which would also be conditioned with reform measures that have yet to be made public.

Although Torlakson's letter to Duncan was widely reported last week as an appeal for such a waiver, the state schools chief said Friday California had not applied. Instead, Torlakson said, he had asked Duncan to merely freeze the state's annual proficiency targets and thus avoid having a new cohort of schools fall into the failing category.

"We are not applying for a waiver at this time," he said. "My understanding is the conditions -if any - that would be attached to a waiver are still being worked on and there has been not a final determination by Arne Duncan and his department as to what conditions or caveats will be part of the waiver."

There are two states, however, that have appeared to have won relief from the sanctions of NCLB from Duncan this summer - without having to agree to reform conditions: Idaho and Montana.

National school organizations have called on Duncan to do the same for other states, by granting permission to modify "accountability workbooks" and freeze annual proficiency targets in reading and math until reauthorization is completed - action believed to be within the secretary's authority.

Torlakson said his letter to the secretary asked that California receive such permission.

"We're weighing in to say, Don't saddle us with conditions that we can't meet or we don't feel are appropriate for California," Torlakson explained.

"And if he (Duncan) can't resist a waiver that isn't tied up with a lot of caveats and costs, the next best thing is freezing the accountability act as it is, not holding anyone accountable for it anymore," Torlakson said.

The fact that state officials in Idaho and Montana threatened to simply stop complying with NCLB may have played a role in both states receiving unencumbered relief. Asked if his office would consider going down the same road, if federal officials are unresponsive to the request made in his letter - Torlakson said he would consider it.

"We are looking at all options and hoping to get a positive response from this letter," he said. "We'll cross the bridge when we get there but all options are on the table."

A former school teacher and veteran lawmaker from the East Bay, Torlakson said a recent visit to an elementary school in Southern California made the turmoil caused by NCLB once again visibly clear.

The school, he said, like many others in the state is making progress as they struggling against huge budget cuts, bigger class-sizes and more demanding performance targets.

"They've just had a significant boost in test scores," he noted. "But because it wasn't reflected before a particular deadline - even though all this progress was being made - they are going to have to put out letters saying they are a failing school.

"The teachers, of course, are discouraged by that and the parents, confused by that," he said. "I think it just shows that the system is unrealistic and out of touch."