By MAUREEN HAYDEN
At West Goshen Elementary, the federal government’s decision two years ago to waive the escalating requirements of the No Child Left Behind law was good news.
The statewide waiver for Indiana schools gave officials in the high-poverty district the flexibility to use federal money to open a new preschool for the most at-risk students and hire reading instructors to work with a growing number of immigrant children whose parents don’t speak English. It freed up money to keep the school library open in the summer for literacy programs.
Those initiatives helped, administrators say. Student test scores rose and West Goshen pulled itself up from a near-failing grade under the state’s school-rating system.
Now, West Goshen officials worry their efforts are in peril.
In early May, the U.S. Department of Education released a report showing Indiana is at risk of losing its No Child Left Behind waiver because the state has failed to keep its promises for improving schools.
The waiver’s loss would mean local schools lose control of a portion of the $231 million in federal money they use to help students in poverty. Instead schools would have to set aside about $46 million for federally mandated programs that could mean cutting some teachers.
As alarming for school officials, losing the waiver would label almost every Indiana school as “failing” under the federal education law.
“I don’t think they’re fooling around,” said West Goshen Principal Alan Metcalfe. “Right now, we’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best.”
The U.S. Department of Education has given state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz until July 1 to show how the state will rectify its problems.
Indiana was one of 10 states to receive a waiver in 2012 from the landmark education law that compels schools to have 100 percent of students proficient in reading and math by this year.
Federal officials alerted Indiana in early May the waiver was at risk because the state has failed to meet nine of 18 benchmarks it set when requesting the waiver. A lengthy report said Indiana, among other things, failed to show how it’s preparing students for college and careers, and that teacher and principal evaluation systems are inadequately tied to student achievement.
Ritz has minimized the threat, calling the problems “technical.” Her assurances have failed to comfort critics on the State Board of Education. They’ve said the shortcomings pointed out by federal officials are significant.
“Losing the waiver will have an immediate and devastating effect on our schools and students,” said board member Brad Oliver, a former teacher and school principal.
Oliver and school officials around Indiana point to the state of Washington to justify their fears. Last month, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan yanked that state’s waiver after its Legislature failed to pass a law requiring schools to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.
Local schools felt the impact immediately. They’re losing control of more than $40 million a year from the federal Title I program for at-risk students. Instead of deciding how to spend the money, they’re required to set it aside to transport students to higher-performing schools, pay for private tutoring programs, or foot the bill for intensive teacher training.
“When you look at our waiver, you realize it was a victory for Indiana because local schools got to make decisions about how they could best spend their Title I money,” said Oliver. “And many of our schools were succeeding doing just that.”
Logansport Community Schools Superintendent Michele Starkey said she fears losing control of Title I funds.
Starkey doesn’t want to let go of reading coaches she’s hired with Title I money to help immigrant children in her schools. Thirty percent of Logansport students don’t speak English as their native language, and most of those students them live in poverty.
“With those kind of students come high needs,” Starkey said. “We’d lose a ton of flexibility in working with them.”
Almost every school in Indiana receives Title I money; schools that get the most would feel the waiver’s loss the deepest. Many use Title I funds to hire teachers to give extra help to struggling students. Some, like Goshen, use the money for pre-kindergarten programs for low-income students.
Even schools with few low-income students are wary of losing the waiver. That’s because nearly every school in Indiana would likely be labeled as “failing” if switched back to the No Child Left Behind rules.
The law mandates that every child — including students with developmental disabilities and those who don’t speak English as their native language - be reading and doing math at grade level by this school year. The waiver exempted the state from meeting that 100 percent proficiency goal.
Its loss would hit Zionsville Community Schools, for example, which has the lowest student poverty rate in the state and some of the highest math and reading proficiency scores. The district’s schools have earned an “A” rating under the state’s grading system.
“There would be a near-universal failure rate,” said Zionsville finance chief Mike Shafer. “One day, you’d have an A school. The next, it would be labeled ‘failing.’ How do you think parents would feel about that?”
— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.