Waiver battle is a big fight over a very small change


OLYMPIA — The fight over keeping the state’s waiver under the flawed No Child Left Behind was a big battle over a small issue. Too bad it has massive consequences.

It wasn’t about “high-stakes testing.” Washington state first mandated students to prove proficiency through standardized testing in 1993.

It wasn’t about whether student test scores should be a factor in teacher and principal evaluations. That was required by legislation passed in 2012.

It wasn’t about adding another test to the array already given to students. The statewide tests that the federal government wanted included in teacher and principal evaluations have been given and will continue to be given.

It wasn’t about the power of the federal government and its role in education. That is well-established as members of Congress from both parties enjoy tying strings to all federal money that flows to states and school districts.

It isn’t even about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan throwing his weight around. That’s because the waiver he is offering the states is meant to relieve them of the burdens of a federal law that passed in 2001 with good intentions but bad results.

So if it is not about any of these things, why were they the talking points at the center of the debate that led last week to the state being the first in the nation to lose its waiver?

Good question. Because at its core, the issue was only about requiring that at least one of the tests used to evaluate teachers and principals be the statewide, standardized test.

Student test results already must be a substantial factor in evaluations under existing state law. But classroom-based, school-based or district-based assessments can also be used and can make up the bulk of what teachers and principals are evaluated on.

The difference, therefore, between the evaluation system already in place and the system that would have allowed the state to retain its waiver under No Child Left Behind is minuscule

Yet the leadership of the Washington Education Association made this a line-in-the-sand fight for its members — and for Democrats who want the union’s support. They used apocalyptic language, belatedly adopted by Democratic leaders in the Legislature, that doing what the feds wanted would damage our education system.

It worked, I guess. The Democrats helped block this slight change to existing teacher and principal evaluation law and, as expected, the state lost its waiver. Having to abide by a federal law that everyone says is flawed will — at most — do damage to the state’s poorest students, and — at least — create headaches for schools, districts and the state. And it will result in nearly every school in the state being labeled “failing,” both those that are indeed failing and those that are giving impoverished kids a fighting chance at success.

The union and Democratic leadership have passed through several phases of argument. First they said the state’s well-placed congressional delegation would simply lobby the Department of Education to keep the waiver in place. Then they said losing the waiver wasn’t a big deal.

And now they have become born-again states’ rights advocates.

“The reality is the feds want a one-size-fits-all system that doesn’t fit Washington,” said Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson of Maury Island. “Our evaluation system was designed for Washington, and it works for Washington’s kids and their teachers and principals.”

In truth, though, Washington’s existing evaluation system is based on the requirements that Duncan put out in 2011 as conditions for getting the waiver. Absent that carrot, Washington would not have required the use of student test data in evaluations or the use of evaluations in school-based decisions like layoffs, rehires and assignments.

Almost from day one, the feds led and the state followed.

As a postscript, the same week the waiver was stripped from Washington state, union and education officials in Oregon reached an agreement to use statewide test results in teacher and principal evaluations. Oregon is expected to keep its waiver as a result.


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