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Schools chief seeks relief from law labeling schools as 'failing'

August 25, 2011 |  3:00 pm

State superintendent of public schools Tom Torlakson
California’s top school official has requested immediate relief from federal guidelines that, if unaltered, would label nearly 80% of schools serving large numbers of low-income students as failing.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson formally aligned with officials from other states in seeking a waiver from federal rules and penalties under the No Child Left Behind Act. Under that law, nearly all students are supposed to be academically “proficient” by 2014.  States must progress toward the 2014 requirement every year, a rising target that increasing numbers of schools are unable to meet.

Such schools are subject to federal sanctions, including being closed, having the staff replaced or being converted to charter schools. Charters are operated outside of direct school district control and don’t have to abide by a school system’s labor agreements.

“Relief is needed immediately before more schools suffer for another school year under inappropriate labels and ineffective interventions,” Torlakson wrote in letter released Thursday.

Torlakson wants a freeze on Race to the Top requirements to allow the state to focus on its neediest schools and on developing “a more robust teacher and principal evaluation system.”

What makes Torlakson’s stand bolder is that he has objected, in advance, to conditions that are likely to accompany any waiver. The Obama administration has signaled that it is most likely to grant waivers to states that pursue favored reforms, including linking individual teacher evaluations to their students’ standardized test scores.

“These policy priorities would mark dramatic deviations from the existing policies required under” No Child Left Behind, Torlakson wrote. “States would be asked to make commitments beyond NCLB with no commensurate funding to provide the state capacity to implement such requirements.” The “appropriate forum” for such “new legal mandates,” he wrote, should be Congress.

A spokesman for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested that Torlakson may be overreaching.

“Up until now, states’ only option was to obey the law,” said spokesman Justin Hamilton. “They will soon have a second option — to pursue flexibility in exchange for reforms that drive student achievement. There is no third option.”

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger embraced aggressive reforms endorsed by the Obama administration. Current Gov. Jerry Brown has had some reservations. Torlakson’s predecessor, Jack O’Connell, was willing to accept federal reform priorities, in part, to make the state eligible for competitive Race to the Top grants. California did not ultimately win one of the grants.

Torlakson, then in the Legislature, opposed some of the reforms embodied in the Race to the Top application, as did teachers’ unions that supported his candidacy to succeed O’Connell.


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Photo: Tom Torlakson. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times