English-language development. Out-of-class reading interventions with specialized teachers. Paraeducator training.
Adams Elementary School in Yakima, like many other schools in the Yakima Valley, can afford some supplementary services for struggling students because of federal Title I funds available to schools with high percentages of lower-income students.
“It’s just really important in helping the kids get caught up and stay caught up — the money helps,” said fourth-grade teacher Stacy Kirschenmann. “It opens up different teaching strategies that are best practices for all kids.”
But control over that federal money — more than $40 million — may be in jeopardy in schools across the state.
With just three days to go in the 2014 Legislature, school districts could be on the verge of losing control over Title I funding if lawmakers do not pass controversial measures that tie teacher evaluations to student scores on state assessments.
(An interactive chart showing Title I funding for Washington school districts is available at the bottom of this story.)
Last summer, the U.S. Department of Education placed the state on “high-risk status” for losing its waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind requirements if the evaluation system was not reformed. Now, time is almost up.
If the state loses the waiver, school districts would have to set aside 20 percent of Title I money for use on private tutoring services instead of the various programs created to help low-income students improve in math and reading.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, states can seek waivers from the mandate’s stringent benchmarks, such as showing that all students have met standards on state assessment tests by the end of the 2013-14 school year. As a result, several states, including Washington, applied for waivers.
The Department of Education granted the state its waiver two years ago. However, the state’s approach to the evaluations — allowing districts to decide which tests would be used — did not sit well with the federal agency, and last summer it placed Washington on high-risk status.
Two bills in the Legislature are currently in play that could extend the waiver. House Bill 2800, legislation pushed by Gov. Jay Inslee and state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn, would require the use of state test scores in evaluations of teachers and principals but delay implementation until the 2017-18 school year. A similar bill in the other chamber, Senate Bill 5580, does not delay the implementation. Neither bill has yet made it out of committee.
Local school officials, for the most part, agree that redirecting Title I funding would be a setback for students who benefit from these programs.
“Title I funds provide us the ability to be able to offer special services, programs, support, materials,” said first-year Adams Principal Bill Varady. “It’s tremendously important and it would be a significant blow, I’m sure, to all schools that lose (Title I) funds.”
It’s not just local districts that are panicking: On Friday, the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools issued a letter to faculty and staff detailing his concerns over potentially losing the funds.
The local impact of Title I is significant because every school district in Yakima County receives the funding.
The Yakima School District could potentially have to redirect more than $1.5 million in the upcoming school year if the waiver is not renewed — the fifth-highest total in the state. Sunnyside, the second-largest district in the Valley, could potentially lose control of nearly $800,000.
In addition, schools would be required to send letters to parents detailing how the school is failing under No Child Left Behind and explain that the district would cover transportation costs should parents move their children to a school that isn’t failing, which could amount to a sizable chunk of the Title I funds.
Yakima Superintendent Elaine Beraza said it would be foolish for the Legislature to ignore the evaluation system and potentially lose the state’s waiver.
“The money goes where it belongs and that is with the kids,” she said. The Yakima School District uses Title I funds on programs like Read 180, which promotes daily reading. The federal money also cleared the way for Barge-Lincoln Elementary School to extend its school hours by 30 minutes, she said.
In Wapato, Superintendent Becky Imler fears intervention programs intended to help students during the school day could be moved to after-school hours if federal money is shifted elsewhere, which would mean local schools would relinquish control to private tutors.
“The waiver really allows us to direct money to more effective programs for kids,” she said, further adding that teachers benefit from the funds as well through professional development.
But not all districts say diverting Title I funds would be a disaster. Sunnyside officials believe that the financial setback would be minimal. Curtis Campbell, director of executive services, said his educators think the loss of 20 percent of the funds would be manageable.
Regardless, the issue of reforming the teacher/principal evaluation system to keep the funding remains heated. On Thursday, several teachers in Olympia spoke in opposition to both bills.
In Yakima, teacher contract negotiations have been stuck largely around what evaluation system would be used. Steve McKenna, president of the Yakima Education Association, said the federal government should invest in public education regardless of a waiver’s status.
“There’s so many factors teachers can’t control,” he said about tying test scores to educator performance. “You can’t control things happening in their homes, the makeup of the family, socioeconomic conditions these kids are under. There’s huge fairness issues here.”
Thursday is the last day of the 2014 legislative session in Olympia. Even if either bill passes, there is no guarantee the Department of Education will approve the state’s efforts.
• Rafael Guerrero can be reached at 509-759-7853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.