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Where Fate Of Wash. State's Education Waiver Now Stands, And Why It Matters

Washington state is at risk of losing nearly $40 million in federal funding after lawmakers left Olympia without passing a teacher evaluation bill.

Without the bill, the state failed to secure a waiver for an onerous requirement under the No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, the fate of federal funding for local preschool programs and extended day services now hinges on what federal education officials decide in coming months.

Here's an explanation of why the lawmakers didn't pass the bill, and where the complex issue now stands. 

Dorn: Only One Wash. School Considered ‘Proficient’ Under Law

When President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2001, it set a very lofty goal: every single student in the U.S. will be able to pass state tests of their math and reading skills by 2014.

But very few schools around the nation are meeting that goal. Washington's Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn says only one school in the state can count 100 percent of its students as "proficient." Most of the rest of the state's schools are considered underperforming under the 2001 law's requirement.

This is where support for NCLB began to break down, says the New America Foundation's Anne Hyslop.

"It doesn't make sense to label every single school in a state as not meeting expectations or not doing well," she said. "That's not useful to anybody."

Waivers Give States Flexibility

Though the No Child Left Behind Act technically expired in 2007, Congress has been unwilling or unable to tackle the controversial task of rewriting the law.

In the absence of Congressional action, leaders of the U.S. Department of Education allowed states to apply for flexibility from some of the most burdensome requirements of the law. The idea was to grant states waivers, thereby allowing them to find their own ways to measure school performance.

Federal education officials grantedWashington state's waiver application in July 2012.

Why Washington’s Waiver Is Now In Jeopardy

By last August, it became clear that in order to retain Washington’s waiver, the state would have to make changes to its newly-enacted teacher evaluation system.

The state system made the use of test scores in teacher evaluations optional. The feds want the scores to be a required factor, as Hyslop explains, to create systems that show which tests are most effective at helping their students learn.

But the state teachers unions opposed the move. 

"As any teacher will tell you, a single state test does not measure student growth," said Washington Education Association spokesman Rich Wood said.

Dorn says the WEA convinced state lawmakers not to pass the evaluation legislation, thereby rowing the future of the waiver into doubt.

What Happens To The Waiver Now?

The Associated Press reports Washington state's waiver is "not dead yet." A U.S. Department of Education official told the AP discussions between federal and state officials will continue.

Hyslop agrees it's not clear whether it will go away, especially since Washington isn't the only state whose waiver is at risk.

"It could be that the department finds a way to work with states like Washington," said Hyslop, suggesting that the feds could seek "some middle ground."

Dorn isn't as optimistic, though he says he wouldn't turn down the opportunity for further dialog with federal officials.

"I wouldn't close the door, but again, I was going on the information that we needed the bill, and we didn't get the bill. I would say the chances of getting the waiver are slim," Dorn said. "But nothing's over 'til it's over, I guess."

What If We Lose The Waiver?

Assuming they'll be fully beholden to the old law's requirements, most Washington schools would have to use roughly $38 million worth of federal funding to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act if the state loses the waiver.

That's money schools are already spending on other programs. 

Tacoma started new preschool programs with that money. Seattle superintendent Jose Banda says a loss of the waiver would mean "an immediate reduction in classroom coaches and curriculum specialists who work in literacy and math."

"It really does matter for the students that are now getting services that are at risk," said Dave Powell, executive director for the Washington branch of the education advocacy group Stand for Children.

But Wood says discussion of the state's teacher evaluation system diverts focus from what he sees as bigger problems: large class sizes and low education funding levels.

"That's not good for kids," Wood said. "We need to make sure that we preserve the integrity and the success of the teacher evaluation system we have in Washington state, which is working."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.