SEATTLE — Washington state is losing its independence to decide the best way to spend about $40 million in federal dollars to improve how students perform in its public schools, education officials said Thursday.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told state officials he was taking away a waiver that allowed the state to ignore some requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law because Washington did not meet federal demands to include student performance on standardized tests in teacher evaluations.
Gov. Jay Inslee said he expects the federal decision may lead to teacher layoffs and cuts in programs that support struggling students.
Washington state is the first to lose one of the waivers granted to 42 other states and the District of Columbia. The waivers are a stopgap until Congress acts to reauthorize the federal framework for the nation’s school.
Duncan wrote that he appreciated the state’s effort to reform its schools, but said officials there hadn’t done enough to keep the flexibility waiver.
“Washington has not been able to keep all of its commitments,” Duncan wrote.
Washington state has been operating under a conditional waiver for the past two school years, as lawmakers debated changes in state law but could not come to an agreement on teacher evaluations that satisfied the federal government.
Inslee and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn both called the announcement disappointing but not unexpected. A Republican lawmaker who chairs the Senate Education Committee blamed the state’s largest teachers union, which fought against changes to the teacher evaluation system.
“This was easily avoidable,” said Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island.
The Washington Education Association said the Legislature did the right thing earlier this year when it opted not to change the state’s teacher evaluation system.
“I can only conclude rescinding the waiver is a failure of federal policy, not of our public schools, students or teachers,” said WEA President Kim Mead.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said he was frustrated.
“If the goal was to help students be successful, I’m trying to figure out how the action taken by the Department of Education, how that will lead to better student outcomes,” he said. “You’re penalizing the poorest schools in the state of Washington.”
Washington state’s education problems run deeper than Thursday’s announcement. Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and others point out that the state still needs to answer a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling that found the state isn’t spending enough money on education and is depending too much on local taxes.
Lawmakers need to find at least $2 billion to answer that court decision.
In addition to losing control of the federal dollars, Washington will have to go back to using its old school evaluation system.
Under the No Child Left Behind Law, nearly every student in Washington public schools was expected to be reading and doing math at grade level by the end of the 2013-2014 school year. That goal will not be met by many schools.
Districts that do not meet that benchmark are required to set aside 20 percent of the federal dollars going to low income schools to provide tutoring or to pay to bus kids to different schools that are meeting the requirement. That — as of now — would add up to about $40 million in federal money for Washington.
The Tacoma school district, for example, has used its flexibility to spend nearly $2 million to add preschool to five elementary schools and hire instructional coaches for all low-income schools in the district.
Dorn said Washington has made a lot of progress, despite not meeting the goals of No Child Left Behind. He says the problem is with the federal law and inaction by Congress.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., agreed.
“I have made clear time and again that I will work with anyone who is willing to reauthorize (the federal education law), but to date, making progress on updating this law has been an unnecessarily partisan fight,” Murray said in a statement. “We must come together at all levels of government in order to put students first.”