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US turns down No Child Left Behind waiver for California

Jacquelyn Martin / AP file

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered states waivers last year, saying No Child Left Behind forced school districts 'into one-size-fits-all solutions that just don't work.'

California has become apparently only the second state — and by far the largest — to be denied a waiver of requirements of the No Child Left Behind education program, state officials said.

Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have won waivers from provisions of the 2001 law, one of the signature achievements of the administration of former President George W. Bush, while nine other states and Puerto Rico have received conditional approval or have applications pending, according to the U.S. Education Department.

The agency doesn't publicize which states have been turned down, but Iowa is the only other state to have publicly acknowledged that it has been rejected.

California officials got the news Friday by telephone, The San Jose Mercury News reported, quoting Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education.

Kirst told the Mercury News that California's unwillingness to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores was what sank the state's request.

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The denial wasn't a surprise — Kirst and state school Superintendent Tom Torlakson warned local administrators in an open letter Friday (.pdf) that federal officials had indicated that California's request would be turned down.

No Child Left Behind

Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have won waivers from the 2001 No Child Left Behind law. Nine states (in addition to the Puerto Rico) have received conditional approval or have requests pending:
- Alabama
- Alaska
- Hawaii
- Illinois
- Maine
- New Hampshire
- North Dakota
- Texas
- West Virginia

Two states are known to have been rejected:
- Iowa

Five states haven't requested waivers or have withdrawn their requests:
- Nebraska
- Pennsylvania (plans to request a waiver at a later date)
- Vermont
- Wyoming

Sources: U.S. Education Department; California Education Department; San Jose Mercury News; State of Iowa

"It is disappointing that our state's request — which enjoyed such strong support from parents, teachers, administrators, and education advocates across California — has apparently been rejected," Torlakson said in a separate statement.

Authorization for No Child Left Behind — formal title: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA — expired in 2007, and Congress hasn't acted to rewrite or refresh it. Last year, the Education Department told the states that they could apply for waivers pending a new law because the current law was "forcing districts into one-size-fits-all solutions that just don't work," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at the time.

In the meantime, the old law continues to impose student test score standards that keep rising every year, to the point that many states say they're unrealistic in 2012. Critics contend that the law locks states into inflexible standards focused solely on reading and math, neglecting subjects like social studies, the arts, health and physical education.

Majority of states lining up to ditch No Child Left Behind

The old standards require a 100 percent rate of proficiency on standardized reading and math tests by 2014. The penalty for falling short is loss of federal funding for schools serving low-income children.

"On behalf of millions of parents, teachers, administrators and community members who fight for all children every day, we urge you to join us in prioritizing education by coming together to reauthorize and fix No Child Left Behind. We've waited long enough," Betsy Landers, president of the National PTA, wrote in an open letter to President Barack Obama last month.

Torlakson agreed, telling state educators: "The appropriate solution is for Congress to reauthorize the ESEA, replace its inflexible requirements with provisions that accommodate the differences in state policy approaches, and give districts adequate flexibility to improve student achievement."

But that doesn't appear likely to happen any time soon, with Congress transfixed by the looming "fiscal cliff" and immigration reform.

"At the moment, it's unclear if there is a real commitment and consensus in Congress for reauthorizing," Duncan told the Council of Chief State School Officers in a speech last month. "I wish there was a clear commitment and consensus."

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