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Stop, Arne, stop.

Stop, Arne. Just stop.

If you fully want to understand how much of a farce the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act has become, consider the comments of the panel reviewing what the proposal from the California Office of Reform Education coalition of eight districts that garnered approval last week. It’s a dozy.

wpid-threethoughslogo.pngReviewers expressed concern about that the CORE districts offered no evidence that they consulted with families, civil rights groups, the notoriously bellicose Golden State affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of  Teachers, or even the state’s influential American Indian tribes before submitting the plan; the fact that the memorandum of understanding between the districts in the CORE group didn’t even require them to seek such input before coming together offered particularly strong evidence that this didn’t likely happen. Considering that states such as New Mexico and New York have also failed to seek such consultation and still had their plans approved by the administration, it isn’t shocking that the CORE districts didn’t do so either. But as the peer review panel rightfully pointed out, the CORE districts particularly need such input because their plan conflicts with that of California which remains under No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability system after its incredibly laughable and shoddy waiver plan was rejected out of hand by the administration earlier this year. Considering the general opposition to the plan from civil rights-based reformers and teachers’ union affiliates alike, as well as the lack of incentive on the part of their puppets, California Gov. Jerry Brown and Supt. Tom Torlakson, to defend their plan, the CORE districts can find their efforts stymied before the new school year is over. [Nothing in the approved waiver shows that CORE addressed those concerns.]

The peer reviewers were particularly vexed that CORE’s plan for implementing Common Core reading and math standards neither offered specifics on the steps that each district would take to put the standards into place, nor could prove “whether CORE has the capacity and resources to ensure that individual district transition activities [to Common Core] occur.” The CORE districts also couldn’t offer a specific plan for how they would provide comprehensive college-preparatory courses aligned to the standards to poor and minority children in their schools, as well as English Language Learners and children trapped in the nation’s special education ghettos. Considering that the districts that make up CORE have done little that subject these children, especially ELL kids, to educational abuse and malpractice, the lack of a plan is not surprising. The percentage of ELL fourth graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District reading Below Basic proficiency increased by eight percentage points (from 78 percent to 86 percent) between 2005 and 2011, even as the nation experienced a four percentage point decline, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress data; in Fresno, the percentage of ELL students who were functionally illiterate increased by two percentage points between 2009 and 2011 (from 86 percent to 88 percent) even amid a two percentage point decline nationwide.  [Again, nothing in the final plan approved by the Obama Administration shows that those concerns were adequately addressed.]

Meanwhile the panel hinted often at the biggest problem with CORE’s waiver plan: The inherent instability of the coalition itself. Because districts within CORE could easily withdraw from the consortium, there would likely be “create confusion and inconsistencies in the application of accountability and improvement.” That the CORE districts has reached no agreement with Golden State officials on either implementing its proposed accountability system or any other aspect of their plans raises even more questions about the viability of their effort. Add in the fact that L.A. Unified, the which is orchestrating CORE is currently in the midst of an internal power struggle between reform-minded superintendent John Deasy and the cadre of traditionalists and independents led by board president Richard Vladovic who now control the district, and suddenly, the very idea of granting the consortium a waiver from both No Child’s waiver provisions (as well as that of California) just comes off as one bad idea. Yet in spite of the questions and concerns raised by its own peer review panel, the Obama Administration approved the CORE plan anyway.

Very little of the problems raised by the peer reviewers (as well as by Torlakson and Michael Kirst, who chairs the Golden State’s board of education, in their own letter to the administration about the plan) was mentioned by any of the Beltway players and other policy gurus commenting last week about the Obama Administration’s decision. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline and conservative reformers such as Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute who have become his lap dogs are denouncing the move as another act of federal overreach somehow tearing apart constitutional federalism, conveniently ignoring the fact that the federal government already engages in direct relationships with local governments (and bypasses states) through such efforts as enterprise zones created through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Renewal Initiative, and the federal Head Start Program (which doles out funding to 1,654 districts, local governments, nonprofits, and corporate outfits who provide what can barely be called early childhood education services). Centrist Democrat reformers cheer-leading the administration’s efforts as Chad Alderman of Bellwether Education, on the other hand, spent time arguing that such waivers could be granted, while evading the longstanding and legitimate questions about whether the entire No Child waiver gambit — which goes beyond the slight alterations allowed under law — is legal in the first place. As usual, the Beltway crowd fail to deal with central problem with the CORE waiver — and ignore completely the heart of the matter of whether the waiver gambit can further the systemic reforms our children deserve.

Meanwhile the very questions raised by the peer reviewers about the CORE waiver proposal extend to just about every one of the plans for the 40 states and the District of Columbia approved by the administration since last year. As Dropout Nation has pointed out ad nauseam in the two years since U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the initiative, the administration has approved waivers in spite of questions raised by its own reviewers about whether states would even fulfill the promises made in their plans. The fact that the states granted waivers haven’t either put reforms into place, or rolling them out beyond a pilot stage — and thus, leaving them vulnerable to being scuttled by opposition from either NEA and AFT affiliates, or opponents of implementing Common Core reading and math standards — meant that the schemes were inherently unstable. Considering that the Obama Administration has little in the way of leverage to force states to keep those promises, it was essentially eviscerating accountability at the risk of getting nothing back for children in return.

All of the problems with the waiver gambit were raised once again today with the news that Duncan’s top aide overseeing the waiver gambit, Deb Delisle, wrote letters to state officials in Kansas, Oregon, and Washington State placing the states in “high risk status” and thus, threatening to cancel the waivers because of their lack of follow-through on promised reforms. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and other state officials, for example, promised to roll out teacher and school leader evaluation systems using objective student test score growth data. But they haven’t fulfilled the plan. Same is true for Kansas, which decided to convene a “task force” to further chat about using student test score growth data in teacher evaluations amid opposition from teachers’ union affiliates. Not that the latter is shocking; two months ago, state officials sought approval from the administration to delay using the evaluation system in rewarding high-quality teachers and sacking laggards, as well as to exempt kids taking trial versions of Common Core reading and math tests being rolled out in the next couple of years from having to take the current battery of state exams. Meanwhile Washington State was also cited by Delisle for not including student test score growth data in its teacher evaluations. This shouldn’t have been a shock to the administration at all. The state’s own laws governing teacher evaluations restrict such uses, and given the NEA’s Evergreen State’s influence over the governor’s office and the lower house, it’s unlikely to become reality anytime soon.

The fact that Kansas, Oregon, and Washington State are unlikely to implement their proposed reforms in a timely manner — if at all — should be no shock at all. After all, there were plenty of questions raised by the Obama Administration’s own reviewers about the viability of each state’s waiver plans. Reviewers looking at Oregon’s plan, for example, were concerned that the state didn’t have a system in place to ensure that districts were doing more than promising to implement the pilot evaluation system, that there was no way to verify the validity of the tools being used by districts in the evaluations, and that the majority of the pieces needed for the system were not in place. In looking at Kansas’ proposed teacher evaluation system, there were concerns that the state education department didn’t clearly show how it would link student test score growth data with teacher and school leader performance data in order to conduct the evaluations; the fact that districts would still have to gain approval from NEA locals to implement the performance measurements was also a problem raised by reviewers.

Will Delisle’s threat be meaningful enough to make any of the states move faster? Not bloody likely. Oregon already says it will likely protest Delisle’s threat to cancel the waiver, and the other two states will probably follow suit. All three can likely count on Congress to back them up: Oregon’s junior U.S. Senator, Jeff Meckley, holds a seat on the Senate’s appropriations subpanel overseeing the Department of Education’s budget, while Kansas’s senators, Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, are already taking on the administration over its support for Common Core implementation. And that’s before you consider the other players who can make Duncan’s life miserable, including Washington State’s Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell (the former chairing the Senate’s budget committee), and Oregon’s famously dogged Ron Wyden (who chairs the upper house’s natural resources panel). Given the legal questions around the administration’s waiver gambit — one that looms even larger after last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision about the Affordable Care Act (which restricts the federal government from withholding existing Medicaid funding from states that don’t implement ObamaCare) — political considerations will likely end up making the administration’s threats empty words. Which in turn, ends up making the No Child waiver gambit a meaningless exercise in paper shuffling that weakens systemic reform.

It has been clear long ago that the Obama waiver gambit allows states to ignore poor and minority kids, rendering them invisible altogether, through such subterfuges as lumping all of subgroups into a so-called super subgroup category that obscures data on the performance of districts and schools in helping each and all kids. It has also been clear that the administration’s decision to allow states to focus on the worst five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent or more of schools with wide achievement gaps) — and ignore those districts serving up mediocre instruction and curricula — will lead to widening achievement gaps. It has even been shown that the Obama Administration could have accomplished some of the relatively more-laudable aspects of the otherwise counterproductive effort if it just worked within the imperfect yet successful accountability framework No Child put in place 11 years ago — and if Barack Obama used his bully pulpit and political capital as smartly as he did at the beginning of his first term.

Now, as one looks at the CORE waivers and Delisle’s warning to Kansas, Oregon, and Washington State, the administration’s policymaking on this front is shoddy and irresponsible. Not exactly good for President Obama’s legacy as school reformer-in-chief — or for children.

It is time for the Obama Administration to end this disgraceful initiative. It is damaging to the futures of children, and to the efforts of reformers transforming education on their behalf.

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