Nine districts request No Child Left Behind waiver

Educators hope to broaden services, eliminate school choice provision

Kathleen Ziegler (from left), instructional coach, talks with Nancy Buckley, a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher, during a co-planning session at Grant Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Friday, April 11, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Kathleen Ziegler (from left), instructional coach, talks with Nancy Buckley, a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher, during a co-planning session at Grant Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Friday, April 11, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Nine of Iowa’s largest school districts, including Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, are collaborating to confront parts of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Those two school systems have joined with Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque, Muscatine, Sioux City and Waterloo to request a waiver for the school choice and supplemental educational services provisions.

“Given the sanctions and mandates with No Child Left Behind, we’re not able to serve the students in the manner which we’d want to do that in our Title I schools,” said Mary Ellen Maske, deputy superintendent of the Cedar Rapids Community School District. “There’s a lot of stipulations on who can provide those services ... We don’t think those mandates allow us to best serve our students.”

Maske’s issues center on language in the act that prohibits districts from using federal Title I dollars, which are allocated to help schools with high populations of students in poverty, to offer required tutoring. Instead, districts must allow families to select from a list of state-approved private providers that the district pays out of those Title I funds.

Pam Ehly, director of curriculum for the Iowa City Community School District, said that can create disconnects in student learning that aren’t present if school staff provide the interventions on-site. Districts are required to set aside 20 percent of their Title I dollars for school choice transportation and supplemental education services. According to Iowa Department of Education data, the nine districts signing the waiver received $30.67 million in Title I dollars in 2013-14.

“Anytime you have somebody who is getting the tutoring from an outside agency, you would assume the content they’re teaching for math and reading would be similar, but you just don’t know,” she said. “If the extra instruction happens during the school day, it’s seamless. The reading teacher can talk to the classroom teacher. The two can share easily.”

The waiver also would allow districts to use Title I money for academic interventions in Title I schools that aren’t in need of assistance or have been but for fewer than three years.

Thomas Ahart, superintendent of the Des Moines Public Schools, called that change the most important piece of the waiver. Ahart rallied the remaining eight districts, which are all members of the Urban Education Network of Iowa, to join the application earlier this summer. Ahart had researched the process for years and decided to get other school systems involved after Des Moines’ Race to the Top educational grant application and the Iowa Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind waiver were both denied.

According to 2013-14 Iowa Department of Education data, the nine districts involved educated 26.03 percent of Iowa’s public kindergarten-through-grade 12 students and 36.18 percent of the state’s public school students who qualified for free- and reduced-price lunch, a measure used to determine poverty.

Ahart also was inspired after talking to staff members with the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of 67 of the country’s largest urban school districts, about a group of eight California school districts that applied for and received a No Child Left Behind waiver from the U.S. Department of Education.

“In my thinking, and I think the council’s thinking, individual districts apply but if you project out what that might look like at the (U.S.) Department of Education with however many districts there are in the country, with each of them applying individually, that would be unmanageable,” Ahart said.

No Child Left Behind also requires districts to allow students in Title I buildings deemed “in need of assistance” to have the option to attend another school not on the needs assistance list.

“What we’ve discovered as that option has been offered repeatedly, we have fewer students taking advantage of it,” Ahart said. “It becomes an issue of not having another place to send students. We’re not allowed to say ‘no’ to students based on space. Some districts are having an issue of having overfilled buildings because the kids are all choosing the same school. It kind of defeats the purpose of better education for kids. … With Title I funding, those are dollars that could be used on instruction instead of busing kids all over the place.”

According to the districts’ waiver, the almost $6 million they’ve set aside for school choice and supplemental educational services has only reached 7 percent of students.

Districts are required to solicit public comment on the waiver before submitting it to the U.S. Department of Education. That window closed Friday afternoon. Now, with the support of the Iowa Department of Education, the decision is at the federal level.

“I’m hopeful but I don’t expect it to be granted,” Ahart said. “I’ve told our partners, our other districts, this is going to take some considerable work, but it’s worth the effort because the payoff is going to be pretty big if it’s approved. We need to send the message that there are some parts of No Child Left Behind that need to be fixed. If (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind) is ever reauthorized, we hope they have ample information from the field about what’s broken.”

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