- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - Washington state would regain flexibility to judge its own public-school performance under a bipartisan agreement announced Tuesday to fix the federal No Child Left Behind education law.

The proposal announced by U.S. Senators Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who is chairman of the Senate education committee, drew cheers from Washington government and school officials even before they were briefed on the details.

“Personally, I’m very grateful for Sen. Murray for her leadership and her listening ear to our concerns,” said state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

“I’m both anxious and excited,” Santos said, adding that she has had numerous conversations with Murray’s office and feels confident the senator worked to make sure the proposal will make sense for Washington and other states.

If passed by Congress, the proposal would eliminate the need for Washington to regain its waiver over requirements of the No Child Left Behind Law. Last year, Washington state lost its waiver after lawmakers refused to answer a demand by the federal government that they pass a bill that would require statewide student test results to be used as a factor in teacher evaluations.

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction estimated the state would lose control over how it spent nearly $40 million in federal dollars for academic help for struggling students if the state lost its waiver.

The state also was forced to return to an old way of evaluating its schools. More than 1,900 schools out of about 2,200 in Washington were labeled as failing in 2014 because of the No Child Left Behind system. Washington had a two-year reprieve from that system until the waiver was taken away in April 2014.

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, the chairman of the state Senate Education Committee, called Tuesday’s announcement a step in the right direction. But Litzow said he wouldn’t stop fighting to regain Washington’s waiver until the proposal was signed by President Barack Obama or the U.S. Education Department said everyone could have a wiaver.

“If some point in the future, it actually becomes law, great,” Litzow said.

Litzow said he still has school districts passionately demanding legislators change state law to require that statewide student test results be used as a factor in teacher evaluations, so he’s going to keep pushing toward that change. The testing requirement was attached last week to House Bill 1345 by Litzow’s committee after Santos did not bring up for a vote the Senate’s teacher evaluation bill.

Tacoma Public Schools, which lost control over $1.8 million in federal dollars when Washington lost its federal waiver, expressed relief that Congress is finally moving forward on fixing the federal education law, which has been in limbo since it expired in 2007.

“This is a new fresh step for us,” said Tacoma Deputy Superintendent Joshua Garcia, who has been in regular dialogue with Murray’s office over the district’s need for a new federal education law. “We’re extremely optimistic and supportive of the progress that’s been made.”

Tacoma had to lay off teachers and some children lost access to district services because of the loss of the waiver, Garcia said.

Gov. Jay Inslee applauded Murray and Alexander for working together on a solution to the education-law stalemate and thanked Murray for listening to people in Washington state. “Instead of penalizing children and schools who need our help most, this proposal will allow school districts the flexibility to best use federal dollars on proven programs,” Inslee said in a statement. He encouraged fast action by Congress.

Since 2012, states have been forced to apply for waivers from some of the law’s requirements. Washington gained a waiver and then lost it, making it one of only a few states still required to follow the old requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Garcia noted there’s still a lot more work to be done, including action in the U.S. House. “We recognize that it’s a journey. This is a first step,” he said.

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