Washington has become the first state to have its "No Child Left Behind" waiver revoked by the Obama administration. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan notified the state of his decision today, which will restrict Washington's flexibility in spending federal education dollars.
It sounds bureaucratic, but it's an important flare-up in a long-running war between teachers unions and the federal government over standardized testing and whether students' scores should play a role in evaluating teachers.
Washington, like every other state with a waiver, had promised to make that happen. But the Legislature balked, in part because of pressure from teachers, but also because of growing "test fatigue" among students and their parents. A standardized-test boycott at Seattle's Garfield High School made national headlines last year.
In his letter, Duncan made it clear that test scores have to be part of the mix.
"Including student learning growth as a significant factor among the multiple of measures used to determine performance levels is important as an objective measure to differentiate among teachers and principals," he wrote.
The Washington Education Association the union has responded by calling No Child Left Behind a "failed federal law," and it praised the state Legislature for rejecting "Duncan's inflexible and bureaucratic demands."
Washington state won't lose federal dollars, but without a waiver, underperforming schools will have to set aside 20 percent for remedies from "private vendors." That means schools might have to pay for private tutoring, or transportation of dissatisfied students to other schools. They also run the risk of being declared "failing," and possibly having staff replaced.
The state's superintendent of public instruction, Randy Dorn, pushed for the Legislature to link teacher evaluations to testing and he says he's not surprised the waiver was rescinded. But he also says the consequences of losing the waiver are disproportionate.
"You have to write the letter to everyone that you're a failing school," he says. "You're supposed to have 100 percent of students at proficient grade level. If you have one kid that's not proficient, you've got to send out the letter."
He guesses 90 percent of Washington state schools will have to send out that letter this summer.
But he says he expects other states will soon be in the same boat, as other legislatures refuse to comply with the conditions of their waivers.
Duncan, meanwhile, says if Washington state changes its stance on the testing issue, he'd be "pleased" to reconsider the revocation of the waiver.