Politics & Government

Teachers union: Districts can bear loss of No Child waiver

As state lawmakers consider measures that aim to keep Washington’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the state teachers union is working to convince them that losing the waiver wouldn’t be a big deal.

The union is fighting lawmakers’ attempts to mandate the use of statewide tests in teacher and principal evaluations — a fix the federal government has said is necessary for Washington to remain exempt from certain onerous provisions of the federal law.

Many state lawmakers, the state superintendent’s office (OSPI) and Gov. Jay Inslee say losing the waiver would mean school districts statewide will lose control over how they spend $38 million in federal education funds. They — and district leaders in Tacoma and Seattle — say that will result in cuts to programs for low-income students.

But the Washington Education Association says school districts have plenty of federal grant money to spare, meaning districts shouldn’t need to ax programs if the waiver — and control over some federal Title I money — is lost.

“When you look at OSPI documents as to the huge amount of money that is rolled over by school districts every year in Title I, they will be able to still provide the services that their students need,” WEA lobbyist Lucinda Young told a Senate budget panel March 3.

Which side is right? It depends on what you consider “a huge amount of money.”

The U.S. Department of Education allows school districts to carry over 15 percent of their total annual Title I allocation for use during the following school year.

In Washington state, school districts last year carried over $27 million out of the total $184 million in Title I money distributed statewide, according to OSPI.

WEA leaders argue that the carryover funds could be used to cover some of the financial consequences of losing the state’s waiver.

But OSPI lobbyist Marcia Fromhold said school districts use the carryover money to account for changes in federal funding levels that might occur from year to year. (Think sequestration.)

Districts also hold over some money from one year to another to budget for large purchases — such as technology or curriculum upgrades — they otherwise might not be able to afford, Fromhold said.

Another reason WEA leaders say they’re not worried about losing the waiver is because some school districts might be able to get back some money they are forced to set aside, albeit months after they finalize their annual budgets.

If Washington loses its waiver, it would mean any school district receiving federal Title I funding would have to set aside 20 percent of that money to pay for private tutoring efforts, rather than other Title I programs such as all-day kindergarten, counseling services or preschool for struggling low-income students.

All but eight of Washington’s 295 school districts receive Title I funding, said Gayle Pauley, OSPI’s Title I director.

Union leaders have said that much of the money districts would have to set aside for private tutoring could later go back into the districts’ regular budgets, due to low demand for those services.

In some cases that could be true, but that doesn’t mean school districts can rely on the money during their annual budgeting process, Pauley said.

For school districts to regain access to the portion of their Title I funds earmarked for tutoring, they would have to go through an application process showing OSPI that local parents weren’t interested in private tutoring opportunities, Pauley said.

She added that the earliest the money would be available would be January, long after school is underway and school districts have planned their budgets for the year. Only the portion of the money that wasn’t spent on tutoring could then be released and rerouted to other programs, she said.

“When you are creating that budget, you have to set aside the full 20 percent,” Pauley said. “Consequently, you can’t fund any program with any continuity with that money.”

Lawmakers are considering two bills that would change the state’s teacher evaluation system to meet federal demands for state test results. Neither has passed either chamber of the Legislature, and with only three days to go before lawmakers adjourn, it’s unclear whether either measure will pass.

Teachers want to retain flexibility so that they can be evaluated using data from districtwide, school-based or even classroom-based tests.