Politics & Government

Washington loses bid to avoid sending out failing school letters

Washington state won’t get a pass this summer on telling parents that their kids attend failing schools, the federal government says.

The U.S. Department of Education has denied Washington’s request to be exempted from that particular requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In April, Washington became the first state to lose its waiver from the federal law, meaning it will have to begin complying with the law’s provisions starting this fall. The 2002 law says schools that don’t meet federal achievement standards must notify parents that the schools are underperforming.

State Superintendent Randy Dorn said Monday that it is unclear right now exactly how many schools will have to send letters home to parents, but that it will be “a majority” of schools in Washington. State officials will know for sure after they review test results that will come out in August, he said.

In the letters to parents, underachieving schools that rely on federal Title I dollars must offer parents the opportunity to send their children to a different, nonfailing school — even if none is available, according to a memo from the U.S. Department of Education dated Friday. Many of those schools also will have to offer parents additional tutoring.

To pay for those services, school districts must set aside 20 percent of the Title I money they receive from the federal government, which amounts to about $40 million statewide.

The notifications to parents are supposed to go out at roughly the start of the school year.

Last month, Dorn’s office asked the federal government to make an exception so Washington schools wouldn’t have to send the letters out, arguing that offering parents school choice is “a moot point” since virtually no schools are meeting federal progress goals.

No Child Left Behind says that 100 percent of students must be passing state math and reading tests in 2014, a standard that schools across the country have been unable to meet.

But Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle wrote that the letters still provide parents with “valuable information, such as ... what the school is doing to address problems of low achievement, and how parents can become involved in addressing academic issues.”

Dorn said that having to send the letters is frustrating because he thinks Congress needs to update the No Child Left Behind law, and also because he had pushed for the Legislature to enact changes this year that would have preserved the state’s waiver from the federal rules.

“It’s a perfect example of government not working very well,” Dorn said Monday.

Federal officials said they revoked the state’s waiver because Washington doesn’t require state test scores to play a role in teacher evaluations. School districts in Washington can rely solely on local tests to measure student growth, a standard the U.S. Department of Education has deemed unacceptable.

Several school district officials in South Sound predicted the letters offering school choice and tutoring might surprise parents who believe their children’s schools are performing well.

“Families with children in even our most successful schools will likely now receive a letter saying their child's school is failing,” said Rebecca Japhet, spokeswoman for the Olympia School District. “There’s a real concern that this will send a confusing and inaccurate message to parents, students and the public.”

University Place Superintendent Patti Banks said having to send the letters out will also be “demoralizing to parents and to staff.”

“I don’t think it does anything to advance parents’ understanding of the achievement of their schools,” Banks said Monday.

Dorn said he plans to reintroduce legislation next year that would change Washington’s teacher and principal evaluation system and help the state reclaim its No Child Left Behind waiver.

Forty-two other states and the District of Columbia still have waivers from the No Child Left Behind law.