The California Office to Reform Education (CORE) is closer to becoming the first consortium of school districts to receive a flexibility waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Although the nine CORE districts -- Clovis, Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, Sanger, and Santa Ana Unified -- submitted a formal waiver proposal to the U.S. Department of Education in February, speculation around district-level waivers had been percolating for months, particularly in states that were reluctant to apply for a waiver or failed to meet the Department’s waiver guidelines, like California.
Naturally, groups representing states -- like the Council of Chief State School Officers -- have significant concerns about district waivers, as it throws the relationship between local, state, and federal authority off kilter. Meanwhile, influential leaders in California, including State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, theoretically support the CORE request, but raise questions about how it would work in practice.
I share these concerns. Many states sought to unify state and federal policies via waivers and create a streamlined, more effective system of school accountability and improvement. But despite their intentions, most waivers are convoluted, confusing, and vague, presenting a challenge to those trying to monitor states’ progress and figure out what’s working (like me!). In other words, despite a common map and itinerary from the U.S. Department of Education, states chose very different, and often, indirect routes to arrive at their final waiver destination. Don’t get me wrong: variation and creativity aren’t necessarily bad things. Some states needed to spend more time developing teacher evaluations, or take a side trip and explore new approaches to student assessment. But, these variations certainly make the system more difficult to understand.
When it comes to waivers at the district level, the roadmap simply flies out the window. Most of the flexibility provisions within NCLB operate at the state level, making districts a far less logical driver of change. In most waiver states, local policies can be aligned with the federal-state waiver approach through legislation, regulation, and technical assistance from state education agencies. Schools and stakeholders within district waivers, however, will still have to navigate changing local, state, and federal systems -- just with fewer tools and resources at their disposal to bring the systems together. Thus, district waivers, by design, will likely create even more confusion.
Despite its deviations from the Department’s careful roadmap, the CORE proposal deserves to be taken seriously by waiver-watchers. Last week, the Department moved the request to the peer review stage, which means CORE’s proposal has already made it further down the road than California’s failed attempt. Therefore, it’s worth taking a closer look at the specifics within the CORE approach. Stay tuned for a full rundown of the CORE request in an upcoming post.