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U.S. rejects California’s request for a penalty exemption

Federal officials have rejected California’s request for exemption from rules that penalize low-performing schools and school districts, state officials recently announced.

The state’s failure to win a “waiver” from the No Child Left Behind law was not entirely a surprise, but was still unwelcome news to officials.

“It is disappointing that our state’s request — which enjoyed such strong support from parents, teachers, administrators and education advocates across California — has apparently been rejected,” state Supt. of Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement Friday. “California made a good-faith effort to seek relief from requirements that even federal officials have acknowledged time and again are deeply flawed.”

Under federal rules, more than 6,000 California schools have been labeled as failing. In many cases, these schools are improving, sometimes rapidly. Besides enduring a stigma of failure, they must also set aside as much as 20% of their federal funds to set up tutoring services with outside vendors and to transport students to “non-failing” schools if the families so choose. The outside tutoring has been inconsistent and frequently ineffective, according to some experts.

“At a time when resources for schools are so scarce, schools and districts should be able to focus their resources on delivering services they believe will actually improve student performance — a waiver would have provided that flexibility,” said Paul Hefner, a spokesman for the California Department of Education.

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The U.S. Department of Education said it would not comment until California has been officially notified of its waiver status, but a department spokesman did not contest the state’s announcement.

The state has engaged in a series of high-profile tiffs with federal officials over school reform — and the waiver application was one of them.

Waivers were offered to spare states from a mandate requiring nearly all students to be academically proficient by 2014. But in exchange, states were expected to develop teacher and principal evaluations that rely substantially on student data, such as standardized test scores, among other requirements.

Teachers unions and other critics, including California Gov. Jerry Brown, have faulted the U.S. Department of Education for taking this position on evaluations.

While most states sought waivers, California may have been the only one to do so while choosing which federal directives to follow in its application, state officials said. To do otherwise, they said, would have cost California an estimated $2 billion in new expenses for unproven reforms.

The federal decision was defended by StudentsFirst, a Sacramento-based advocacy group.

“By submitting an inadequate application, California has precluded the ability of school districts and schools to be flexible and innovative with millions in federal funds,” said spokeswoman Erin Shaw. “It’s time to change the system that rejects accountability and continually risks classroom resources that rightfully belong to students.”

howard.blume@latimes.com


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