Texas and the Feds on a Collision Course Over No Child Left Behind Waiver

Texas seems destined to square off again with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Commissioner Michael Williams is making it clear he won’t blink.

The animosity between Texas and the Obama administration’s education department is long standing, stretching back to Gov. Rick Perry’s refusal to compete for the Race to the Top grant. At the time, Duncan told Bloomberg television he felt “very, very badly for the children of Texas.”

Now Duncan has rejected the Texas Education Agency’s application to extend its waiver of No Child Left Behind and its ties to federal dictates around teacher evaluations. The Duncan administration apparently wants uniformity to teacher and principal evaluations. In the past, discussion around uniform evaluations has faltered, and the idea that teachers can be compared using a growth model has resulted in outright rebellion.

“Well before this waiver, TEA’s work to develop new teacher and principal evaluation and support systems was under way with the clear intent of offering it to districts as a resource to improve instruction,” Williams said in news release. “I have always made it clear to federal officials that as part of the waiver process TEA could not exceed its current authority nor would we do anything to erode our state’s strong commitment to local control in public education. My position on this front has not, and will not, change.”

Two scenarios could play out in this situation: Williams could gather a stakeholder group to agree to a common evaluation or lawmakers could pass a bill granting additional authority to assuage federal leaders. Neither seems likely.

The Association of Texas Professional Educators took a key role on the Hill in urging the Department of Education to approve the Texas waiver. But don’t expect them to cross this Rubicon to please the feds.

“Once again, the department showed that they have no understanding of how public education actually works,” said ATPE’s Monty Exter. “Any successful improvement of the public school system has always come from the bottom up. Local control is absolutely necessary in order to have a successful system. In addition, students are not widgets. It’s almost ridiculous to say that we should be able to expect for a metric that purports to compare a teacher in Odessa, Texas to a teacher in Seattle, Washington.”

The Texas Classroom Teacher Association never supported the teacher evaluation component of the state waiver. The Texas State Teachers Association is no fan of how the feds want to see states evaluate their teachers.

“TSTA is opposed to the mandatory use of student growth measures, such as value-added modeling based on test scores,” said spokesman Clay Robison. “It seems as if the Education Department is insisting on such a mandate, although the overwhelming body of scientific research indicates it is a terribly flawed way to evaluate teachers.”

So what happens if the waiver goes away? If the waiver requests are reversed, these are the implications:

Title I funding will be limited to schools and not district programs. Federal standards would define required Adequate Yearly Progress rather than state performance targets. Federal intervention direction would override state-constructed intervention programs, including limits on assisting schools with limited poverty. Small and rural school districts would be stripped of specific assistance funds if they fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress. And, of course, it requests latitude for local school districts to develop their own improvement plans regarding highly qualified teachers.

In other words, failure strips the state of the autonomy to label and address failing schools. Local control is a top issue of school administrators, and it is unlikely Williams would get a warm reception Tuesday the Texas Association of School Administrator’s Midwinter Conference if he proposed bowing to federal pressure.

“Having the feds dictate how we evaluate teachers should be done at the local level,” said TASA’s Amy Beneski. “We’re already calling for fewer high stakes tests. If there’s any movement afoot in DC to scale back local control, we would oppose it.”

Even Sandy Kress, who helped author No Child Left Behind, has his doubts about the department’s authority to dictate waiver terms.

“I agree with many of the solid teacher effectiveness policies out there, but it was quite a stretch for Duncan to do this under the law,” Kress said.

Texas’ saving grace, somewhat ironically, may come from a Republican-controlled Congress. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the new chair of the US Senate Education Labor and Pensions committee, told state lawmakers in December that education decisions are best left to the states. He promised to have a reauthorization bill for No Child Left Behind, seven years overdue, to the Senate floor by May.

The inability of Congress to act has forced waivers, and those waivers have created an unintended result: too much federal control over school activities.

“The Secretary has told states what their academic standards should be, how states should measure the progress of students toward those standards, what constitutes failure for schools and what the consequences of failure are, how to fix low-performing schools, and how to evaluate teachers,” Alexander said at a hearing on a draft bill presented in committee this month. “The Department has become, in effect, a national school board. Or, as one teacher told me, it has become a national Human Resources Department for 100,000 public schools.”

That sounds a whole lot like Gov. Perry’s position. Perry never retreated from his stance that the conditions put on Duncan’s grants amounted to “federal overreach” by setting curriculum standards that rightly belonged in the purview of the State Board of Education.

Meanwhile, Williams has tried to put a positive spin on the latest rejection, promising to put together a stakeholder group to come to some common ground on the teacher and principal evaluation issue. The agency has spent the last two years piloting its own overhauled teacher evaluation system. Under law, TEA can offer the system to school districts, but it can’t dictate that districts use it.

On the Hill, the Senate education committee alone has had two-dozen hearings on the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. The chances may be better that it will pass this time around thanks to the fact that both chambers are now controlled by Republicans.

By Kimberly Reeves

© Copyright January 26, 2015, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved

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