Sacramento City Unified and seven other California school districts were granted a one-year waiver from No Child Left Behind on Tuesday, an unusual move U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said was in the best interest of more than a million students.
As a condition of the waiver, the eight school districts intend to implement a new accountability system that ties student test scores to teacher evaluations.
In exchange, the districts will gain flexibility in spending more than $100 million of existing funds currently mandated for private tutoring and other programs under the federal act intended to improve student performance.
"This is the right thing to do for more than a million students," Duncan said in a conference call. " Their plan offers significantly more accountability than No Child Left Behind did."
As reported last month in The Sacramento Bee, the tutoring program that is a key component of No Child Left Behind has been rocked by allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement.
An increasing number of school districts and researchers say the multibillion-dollar program is ineffective.
Thirty-nine states have been granted waivers from No Child Left Behind, while an additional eight are under review.
California's application was denied after the state did not commit to a teacher evaluation process linked to student test scores. Teachers unions argued that the federal government shouldn't force states to tie teacher evaluations to test scores when factors outside the classroom play a role in student performance.
Tuesday's action was the first waiver granted to individual districts. Most of the districts involved plan to move away from tutoring by third-party vendors and instead offer other intervention programs for struggling students, including after-school and summer school sessions.
"We haven't seen great success in the tutoring program," said Jonathan Raymond, superintendent of Sacramento City Unified. "There is no accountability. We think there is a better way to utilize those resources."
The school districts applied for the waiver under a consortium called the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE. Besides Sacramento City, the waiver includes Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, Sanger and Santa Ana unified school districts.
The decision drew fire from the California Teachers Association.
"We are disappointed," said Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association. "None of the teachers associations in the eight districts were consulted or involved. It was a unilateral action."
It's not clear whether Sacramento City Unified teachers will agree to one of the key conditions of the waiver agreement. The district says any change in teacher evaluations has to be negotiated with the Sacramento City Teachers Association.
"We have a long way to go," said district spokesman Gabe Ross. He said the district will not necessarily have to have the issue settled in the first year of the waiver.
Scott Smith, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, called the waiver a "terrible distraction" as teachers prepare to adopt new national curriculum standards. He said the union is unlikely to agree to any evaluation system that fails to provide support for teachers who receive bad marks.
When the George W. Bush administration launched No Child Left Behind in 2001, it set an aggressive timetable for schools to raise the test scores of students in every subgroup, regardless of race or income.
In exchange for funds from Title 1, a pot of money designated for helping disadvantaged students, schools are required to show that all students score at grade level on math and English tests by 2014.
Districts with schools that have missed benchmarks three years in a row must set aside a share of the money to offer students transportation to a non-failing school or free after-school tutoring.
Duncan said the waiver will give the eight school districts more flexibility in using their federal Title 1 funds to improve educational outcomes for low-income and minority students.
He said one of the most compelling aspects of the districts' waiver was their plan to make more schools accountable for the performance of minority students, those living in poverty and English-language learners.
Currently in California, schools must have at least 100 students in those subgroups to trigger accountability measures. The CORE districts lowered the threshold to 20, meaning their schools will be measured on the achievement of an additional 46,000 students with disabilities, 23,000 African American students, 15,000 Latino students and 10,000 poor students.
"These are children who are literally invisible under No Child Left Behind," Duncan said.
After the one-year waiver expires, Duncan said California can apply as a state, the CORE group can seek a renewal or "Congress can get its act together and fix the No Child Left Behind law for the whole country."
The education act is up for reauthorization next year.
Call Melody Gutierrez, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow her on Twitter @melodygutierrez. Bee staff writer Diana Lambert contributed to this report.