You are here

Feds, state clash over waiver requirements

San Antonio Express-News
January 23, 2015

By Lauren McGaughy

AUSTIN — The U.S. Department of Education has rejected Texas’ proposed teacher and principal evaluation method, threatening the state’s compliance with federal mandates and risking the loss of its control over millions in federal funds for struggling schools.

Texas officials defended their decisions against the criticisms Friday, spurring rumors the state is considering whether to drop its No Child Left Behind waiver request just as Congress mulls whether to revamp the increasingly unpopular federal education law.

In a letter to Education Commissioner Michael Williams, federal officials denied Texas’ request for a waiver from mandates under the 2001 law because the state had not adopted teacher and principal evaluation guidelines that meet federal demands. Without the waiver, Texas would have to issue federal ratings to its public schools and would lose flexibility over how it spends millions of dollars meant to help failing schools.

States are eligible for waivers only if they base at least 20 percent of teacher and principal evaluations on student assessments, including how they perform on standardized tests. Educator groups have balked at the requirement, saying high-stakes tests are poor measures of student learning, but many have been forced to acquiesce.

Not so in Texas, where the state currently lacks authority to tell school districts how to evaluate its educators. Williams, in his response to officials in Washington, reiterated he doesn’t have the power to force school districts to comply with the federal mandates.

Texas has until March 31 to resubmit its waiver application to the U.S. Department of Education. Its current provisional waiver, granted in 2012, will expire at the end of this school year. But Williams notes Texas will not be able to fashion an evaluation method up to federal standards unless state lawmakers give him the power to impose federal mandates on school districts — an unpopular concept in a state that treasures local control.

In an effort to appease the federal government, the state is piloting a new teacher and principal evaluation method that includes the 20 percent student assessment requirement mandated by No Child Left Behind. The pilot will not be completed until the end of the school year, however, well after the March deadline.

Williams can resubmit the application with additional information, or choose not to. State officials are looking at California and Washington — two states that never had or lost their federal waivers — to assess the effects of a decision not to reapply.

“Frankly, (the consequences) seem more manageable than maybe most people think,” said Monty Exter, lobbyist for the state’s largest educator group, the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “The sky has not fallen, and in neither instance has any (federal) money been taken away.”

Williams said he will talk again to “key Texas stakeholder groups” before deciding whether to resubmit an application. “I think they’re setting the stage to maybe gracefully exit from the scene” and forgo the waiver, said Holly Eaton, director of professional development and advocacy for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

But Texas Education Agency officials said they are not prepared to drop their bid for the waiver.

“We’re not at that point,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe. “We’re still talking to our federal counterparts.”

After meeting with state agency officials Friday, Exter added, “They’re still asking for the waiver. There are just some issues he’s not willing to give up in order to get the waiver and it’s unclear whether the Department (of Education) is drawing a strong line in the sand.”

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of possible congressional action on the 2001 federal law. Several lawmakers have filed legislation that would tweak, overhaul or do away with No Child Left Behind.

Congress won’t come to a final decision on NCLB changes before March. But Texas officials likely are hoping the law as it’s currently written won’t be in effect when the state’s provisional waiver expires this year.