Federal sanctions on failing schools don’t die easy

Federal sanctions on failing schools don’t die easy

(Calif.) A key component of the nation’s new education law adopted last month did away with federal sanctions imposed on schools designated as “failing” as defined by the prior regime.

But officials at the California Department of Education have recommended that local educational agencies identified as needing Program Improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act must continue to meet all of the old obligations through August, 2016.

It is unclear what legal footing was used to draw this conclusion, and certainly policy makers in other states might interpret the law far differently. But what is clear are the fiscal ramifications on schools if the policy is upheld by the California State Board of Education next week.

One corrective action, for instance, calls for supplemental tutoring – a service that has cost California districts more than $500 million over the past three years and shown “little evidence” of improving performances, according to a press release issued last year by state schools chief Tom Torlakson after the state lost an appeal for a federal waiver from the mandate.

Two other requirements are also costly – offering free transportation services to students who want to attend a school that hasn’t been designated as needing Program Improvement; and a set aside of as much as 10 percent of a district’s Title I allocation for teacher training.

School officials in California and in other states have repeatedly cited the prescribed NCLB spending as a key reason for participating in a waiver program offered by the Obama administration beginning in 2011.

Still, fighting the question now might be more trouble than it’s worth given that the sanctions would go away in 2016-17.

“I think there’s general consensus that we need to follow along with NCLB through the end of the school year,” said Teri Burns, legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association. “I’m guessing that no one at the state is going to dig too deep to ensure compliance because we are clearly going to be going in another direction, but if there’s blatant disregard that might provoke some response.”

Launched in 2001 with high hopes and bipartisan Congressional support, NCLB came under almost universal criticism largely because of unrealistic performance goals that required all students – including subgroups like English learners and students with disabilities – to test proficient in reading and math.

Schools and districts that couldn’t meet the benchmarks were designated as needing Program Improvement, which triggered corrective actions prescribed in law.

Among the requirements is that schools provide Supplemental Education Services, or tutoring, free to low-income students. A school in PI must also offer free transportation to any student who wants to attend another site not labeled with that designation. Finally, schools are required to set aside a portion of their Title I money for teacher training.

ESSA, signed into law by President Barack Obama four weeks ago, drastically scales back the role of the federal government in K-12 education policy and terminates the entire accountability system that used Program Improvement sanctions as a fulcrum to better school performance.

Instead, over the next two years, states are required to develop and adopt their own system for measuring school performance and holding districts accountable. Congress specifically restricted the U.S. Department of Education from arbitrating or influencing how states fulfill that mission.

In a letter to the field issued one week after Obama signed the legislation, a senior education official sought to explain how the department viewed the transitional process. Some activities and compliance mandates left over from NCLB would be continued; some wouldn’t – presumably the department was taking a read from Congress in issuing the guidance.

Some school officials have said privately that there would be little a federal education regulator could do if a state ignored any or all of what the department said. In turn, observers explained, there would be little the CDE could threaten a district with if they didn’t follow through either.

“It sets up an interesting quandary,” said one school official who asked not to be identified. “Congress specifically tied the hands of the Education Secretary and told the feds to get out of the way. It’s a complicated situation.”

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