Jeanne Matson, center, a fifth-grade teacher at Prospect Elementary in Orange, works with students on their social studies project to built a Native American village. Prospect Elementary was in the minority of schools that met all No Child Left Behind targets in 2011.
LEONARD ORTIZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
President Barrack Obama on Friday announced that states can opt out of the much-maligned federal accountability system if they agree to implement reforms that include tying teacher and principal evaluations to student test scores, enacting standards to prepare students for college and careers, and adopting national common education standards.
"The federal government really did not cut us a break with this waiver plan. All these reforms will cost schools money they just don't have," county Superintendent William Habermehl said. "The better solution would have been for Obama just to give states unconditional relief from NCLB for two or three years while they figure out how to fix the law."
California's willingness to even apply for the waivers also remains unclear. State Superintendent Tom Torlakson has already expressed concern over the ability of the cash-strapped state to enact such sweeping reforms.
Obama outlined a plan for states to seek waivers from the federal law, which increasingly identifies more public schools as failing.
"To help states, districts and schools that are ready to move forward with education reform, our administration will provide flexibility from the law in exchange for a real commitment to undertake change," Obama said. "The purpose is not to give states and districts a reprieve from accountability, but rather to unleash energy to improve our schools at the local level."
No Child Left Behind passed in 2001 with strong bipartisan support. But over the years, critics have said the law has forced schools to emphasize standardized testing above everything else.
Under the law, schools are to meet steadily rising achievement benchmarks until 2014, when all students are to be proficient in English and math – a standard educators frequently criticize as impossible. Schools that receive federal funding for at-risk students face sanctions that include having to offer free tutoring, changing leadership, converting to charters or state takeover.
The waiver would eliminate the requirement that 100 percent of students at schools need to pass state tests by 2014. In exchange, states with waivers would gain more control over how troubled schools are handled as long as they adopt the president's proposed reforms. Waivers will be given to qualifying states early next year.
Obama bypassed Congress in issuing an executive order, saying action was needed because lawmakers have not stepped in to improve the law for years.
O.C. and NCLB
In Orange County, 61 percent of the nearly 600 public schools failed No Child Left Behind testing targets this year, while 38 percent now face sanctions. Both numbers have steadily increased each of the last few years as testing targets have grown tougher.
The county still had higher passing rates than schools statewide, where 67 percent of schools failed and 40 percent face sanctions.
Schools with high concentrations of English learners and special education students often fare the worst as the federal system holds all student groups to the same standards.
Anaheim Union, with 17 of 20 campuses failing, and Santa Ana Unified, with 43 of 60 schools failing, were among the districts with the highest rates of failing schools. The districts also had among the highest rates of English learners.
Officials in both districts said Friday they were reviewing details of the proposed waivers before they could comment on whether to support the president's plan.
Districts with very low concentrations of English learners, including Irvine Unified, with 27 of 34 schools passing, and Los Alamitos Unified, with all 10 campuses passing, had the most success with No Child Left Behind.
Educators often argue that the California's accountability system, the Academic Performance Index, is a better measure of school performance than the one-size-fits-all federal system because the API takes into account demographic differences among schools and rewards campuses for steady improvements. About 87 percent of schools locally met all API requirements in 2011.
Capistrano Unified Superintendent Joe Farley said educators across the state have been advocating for years for No Child Left Behind to follow a formula similar to the API.
"I have schools that make significant progress each year, many that score in the high 800s on the API, and the federal government still calls them failing schools," he said. "There is consensus that the law needs fixing."
Waiver for California?
Torlakson, the state superintendent, sent a letter in August to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calling for unconditional relief from No Child Left Behind. Torlakson said it was unfair for the federal government to impose reforms without paying for them. Torlakson did not comment Friday to the president's waiver plan.
Two years ago, the president also championed reforms that tied teacher evaluations to student test scores, and called for states to adopt common national education standards. His administration offered states millions in grants in the Race to the Top program, but California was not selected because too few school districts applied.
The state has since moved toward adopting common core standards in math and English. But implementation has been delayed somewhat by ongoing state budget cuts.
Recent legislation to require districts to use state test scores to measure teacher performance has also stalled. Teachers unions have argued that such systems have no proven track record of accurately gauging the impact of teachers on student learning.
Joanne Fawley, president of the Anaheim Union teachers association, said the lack of federal funding for the reforms and the ongoing debate over teacher evaluation systems could hinder California's application for the waiver.
"The money schools would need to spend to build evaluations systems or buy textbooks needed to adopt new curriculum standards could be better used right now to lower class sizes," she said.
Many local educators said that despite the waiver plan, the state is already moving towards some of Obama's proposed reforms.
"We're working now more than ever to promote career and college education programs that are better preparing our graduates for success," said Farley, the Capistrano superintendent. "We've also been moving towards common curriculum standards. But whether that's enough for the state to seek a waiver, I just can't say right now."
The Associated Press contributed to this report