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What's At Stake For Tacoma Preschoolers Now That Wash. State Lost Its NCLB Waiver

Kyle Stokes
A preschooler at Tacoma's Stafford Elementary uses an application on a school-owned iPad that allows her teacher to track her progress.

Five-year-old Serenity Johnson has been eager to start preschool since she was 2½ years old.

"She said 'Mommy, I want to go to school,'" her mother, Shantia Johnson, said. "I said, 'You can't go to school until preschool, and we have to pay for preschool. ‘So I needed to find a preschool we didn't have to pay for."

Washington state's waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a controversial federal education law, helped Serenity get exactly what she wanted. The waiver freed up federal money Tacoma Public Schools officials used to expand its publicly-funded preschool programs to Stafford Elementary, the Johnsons' home school.

But Washington became the first state to lose that waiver on Thursday. As a result, state school leaders will no longer have flexibility in spending nearly $40 million in federal money that would've otherwise gone toward complying with the outdated federal law over the past two school years.

In Tacoma, the loss of the waiver has thrown the future of the expanded preschool program up in the air.

"I'm not worried about my job. I know I can teach something else," said Serenity's teacher, Erin Kling, who taught first grade for 13 years before taking a preschool classroom at Stafford this year. "I worry about the kids. They need it."

'Wherever We Cut Will Affect The Most Vulnerable Kids'

How a waiver from an old law resulted in Serenity getting the pre-K program she wanted is a bit of a complicated story.

It begins in 2001, when Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act with a lofty goal in mind: ensure 100 percent of student in the U.S. could pass standardized tests in math and English by this year.

Credit Lawrence Jackson / AP Photo
AP Photo
FILE - President Bush spends time with fourth graders, Khadijah McCain, left, Damien Goolsby, center right, and Darlet Horton, right, at the Pierre Laclede elementary school, Monday, Jan. 5, 2004, in St. Louis.

As the deadline approached with Washington and other states still falling short of that goal, it became clear that the 2001 law's toughest mandates were impractical. The law marked an increasing number of schools as failing to make progress toward the 100 percent goal, and those schools faced steeper consequences.

When it became clear a gridlocked Congress would not change the law, the U.S. Department of Education began striking deals with more than 40 states. The department issued waivers that let the states off the hook from some of NCLB’s most onerous provisions. As part of those deals, education officials freed up federal funding that school districts had set aside each year to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act.

With the waiver, schools gained more flexibility to use that money as they saw fit: expanding preschool offerings, hiring mentor teachers, putting more instructional aids in the classroom and starting after-school programs.

That money — from Title I, the federal program that funds schools with big populations of low-income students — is not going away. But now that federal officials have yanked the waiver, that money must go toward funding other services for students that the 2001 law prescribes.

In Tacoma, that doesn't necessarily mean district officials will have to cut back their expanded preschool programming. But if they keep that program as it is now, other Title I-funded programs will have to be cut.

"Wherever we end up cutting will affect the most vulnerable kids in the district," said Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel. "We're sure there will be some cuts in staffing, we're just not sure yet in which programs."

In some schools, the impacts won't be quite as drastic. Seattle Public Schools, which used more than $2 million in waiver-freed funds to pay for teacher training and after-school or summer help for students, probably won't have to cut staff as a result of the loss of flexibility, says district Title I supervisor Michael Stone.

Why Tacoma Used Waiver Dollars For Pre-K

Shantia Johnson, who is also head of the Stafford Elementary Parent Teacher Organization, says she brought up the idea of starting a preschool program to school principal Cyndi Evans two years ago. Evans ran with it.

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
A Tacoma preschooler, Helen, matches upper-case letters with their lower-case counterparts during an afternoon session at Stafford Elementary in Tacoma, Wash.

"We saw a need for it in our community," Evans said. "Our kids were not coming to kindergarten with any kind of preschool or school experience, and that really showed up."

Stafford students need early learning services, says Evans. The school serves a diverse population where students often come to school lacking necessary English language skills. 

"Kindergarten used to be this social experience to get them ready for school, to get them ready for first grade," said Tacoma pre-K teacher Erin Kling, who says nearly half of her students started this year with little to no English language skills. "They have to be ready, walking in the door in kindergarten." (Hear Kling discuss the importance of investing in preschools)

Evans says cuts to the preschool programs would be an "injustice."

"It's typical that programs that have such a huge impact on our most vulnerable portion of our society — preschool kids who don't speak English who need help getting ready for kindergarten — these kids don't have anyone to advocate for them," said Evans.

What Happens Now That The Waiver's Gone

Parents will notice several impacts of the loss of the waiver in the coming months. Very few Washington state schools meet NCLB’s goals of 100 percent proficiency, meaning most parents will get letters in the mail informing them their school is failing.

That failing status entitles their students to services. To pay for them, districts will have to set aside money that, for instance, Tacoma school officials used to expand preschool programming.

The loss of that flexibility "will have a real impact," according to Anne Hyslop, an education policy analyst at the New America Foundation. "There's just not going to be as much leeway in how they can spend their Title I dollars for school improvement."

Students in schools labeled as failing by NCLB are entitled to transfer to another school at the district's expense. The Title I dollars also pay for tutoring services that are offered by outside companies.

"It has to be offered up to private vendors outside the school system," said Washington state superintendent Randy Dorn, "instead of providing after-school help, help in the school time, Saturday school help, or we've used some of it for summer school, some of it for all-day Kindergarten. Those have to be pulled back, and districts are going to be making some cuts."

Dorn shares the opinion of many public school educators: those tutoring services proved ineffective when NCLB first took effect.

"There's no connection between that tutoring and what the kids are doing at school," said Evans. "For some, it's been very successful, and that's great. But in general, I think that patchwork of services is not the focused instructional support that we want with our kids."

Spending money on the preschool program, says Evans, has a bigger "bang for the buck" for the school, where they've noticed more kids entering kindergarten prepared.

She adds it's a benefit for parents, too. There were few options for families who couldn't quite afford private preschool, yet made too much to qualify for Head Start orECAEP. Shantia Johnson agrees.

"I don't understand why people have to pay for their kids to get an education, whether they're 3 or 4 years old or not," said the Tacoma parent. "It's really not fair. It should be a part of the public education system as it is."

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