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Editorial

A too-costly waiver for No Child Left Behind

California is right not to follow requirements to opt out of the law's provisions. The state has better methods of holding schools to account.

November 20, 2011

Last week, 11 states submitted applications that might release them from the more onerous provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and at least 28 more are expected to apply in future rounds. California doesn't plan to be among them.

What does it take to get a waiver? Too much, Gov. Jerry Brown said during a meeting this month with The Times' editorial board. We agree. There are extensive requirements for states that apply — especially the controversial mandate to include the state's annual standardized test scores as a "significant factor" in the performance evaluations of teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education is wrongly attempting to impose its view of how states should improve education instead of just requiring them to show evidence of higher achievement. Test scores probably have some value in the rating of teachers, but that has yet to be proved. It's important for schools to do this thoughtfully — in ways that are valid, backed by research and that work for individual districts — rather than through rushed nationwide mandates.

We also called for caution when the Obama administration used its Race to the Top grants as incentives to reshape education according to its own agenda. The California Legislature hastily passed a poorly thought-out bill to satisfy the administration and didn't win a grant anyway. Tennessee did win, in good part because of its tough new teacher evaluation procedures, and is paying the price with a heavily bureaucratic system that is sinking morale and turning onetime supporters into critics.

Meanwhile, what will happen to California schools as more and more of them — estimates say about 85% — are defined as failing under No Child Left Behind over the next couple of years? As the governor says, probably not much. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan already has said he will not cut federal funding to California even if it doesn't impose draconian reforms on underperforming schools. Students at failing schools have the right under the federal law to attend successful schools in their districts, but if most schools are labeled as failing, where are the students supposed to go? And when many excellent schools are listed as failures, the public will come to see the law itself as a sham.

California isn't an anti-reform state. Before the federal law passed nearly a decade ago, this state already had — and it continues to have — a better system for holding schools accountable. It measures growth among all students, not just how many reach the arbitrary bar of proficiency. The governor says he aims to improve education in more meaningful ways than standardized tests measure, and at this point we find his goals more promising than those offered by the Obama administration.

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