NCLB waiver clears path for education reform

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The Naugatuck Board of Education is eligible for an additional $635,000 in state education funds after being identified as an ‘Alliance District,’ under the state’s education reform legislation. –FILE PHOTO

A waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind act has opened the door for the state to move forward with an education reform plan.

Late last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to Connecticut to announce the state’s NCLB waiver had been approved.

“I want to commend Connecticut for demonstrating real courage that made it one of the leading states in this round of plans,” Duncan said in a press release.

The waiver frees the state from the mandates of the federal act, including that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

According to the state Department of Education, Connecticut’s waiver calls for implementation of the Common Core State Standards and new assessments aligned to those standards in 2014-15; authorization of intensive interventions and supports necessary to turn around Connecticut’s lowest performing schools and districts; a new, enhanced system of teacher and principal evaluation and support; and reduction of red tape and undue administrative burdens placed on districts.

These initiatives are all a part of Senate Bill 458, an education reform plan that was signed into law in May. The reform bill and waiver are intricately tied together — the reforms helped the state achieve the waiver and the waiver clears the way for the state to proceed with reform initiatives.

“All of it ties together with the waiver,” said Naugatuck Superintendent of Schools John Tindall-Gibson about the reform bill.

Under the legislation, 30 school districts, including Naugatuck, were identified as “Alliance Districts,” districts with the lowest district performance index scores statewide. The state increased the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant by a total of $39.5 million for these districts, of which Naugatuck is slated to receive roughly an additional $635,000.

Without the waiver, Tindall-Gibson said, the state likely would not have allocated the additional ECS funds.

The ECS increase to Alliance Districts follows different rules than other ECS funding. Rather than going directly to the municipalities to be used towards education costs, the increase for these districts will go directly to the local boards of education. And, these districts will have to apply for the additional funding from the state.

The application process and guidelines for the extra funding have yet to be officially announced to Alliance Districts. Tindall-Gibson said state officials are holding a meeting June 11 to issue formal guidelines for the application. He said the school district hasn’t formalized its application yet and is waiting to hear what state officials say at the meeting.

A May 25 letter from state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor to Alliance Districts discusses the subject. The letter states the department “will likely” require districts to reserve a substantial majority of the funding for new reform efforts, or the extension of existing reform efforts, specifically designed to improve student achievement. The districts must provide evidence as to why the new or existing efforts are likely to succeed, the letter states.

The letter states reform activities may include ways to strengthen foundational programs in reading to ensure reading mastery in kindergarten to grade three, inclusive; additional learning time, such as extended school day or school year; training on new evaluation models; and provisions for coordination with early childhood education providers to ensure alignment with district expectations for kindergartners, including funding for an existing Head Start program.

Tindall-Gibson felt Naugatuck’s strong early childhood education programs would be good candidates for the additional funding.

Pryor’s letters also states Alliance District designations are for five years and such districts can seek funding for multi-year programs as it’s anticipated the funds will continue in future years.

If Naugatuck’s application or portions of it are rejected, the district would lose out on the additional revenue, Tindall-Gibson said.

“I don’t foresee that though,” he added.

Tindall-Gibson said the state is willing to work with districts to help them be successful.

Pryor wrote, “We believe the Alliance District program will help districts raise student performance and assist in closing the achievement gap. We look forward to working with you to implement this provision of Senate Bill 458.”

ECS funding for Region 16, which covers Beacon Falls and Prospect, is going up as well. Beacon Falls’ ECS is increasing by about $64,000, while Prospect’s share will increase a little more than $58,000.

However, Region 16 is not identified as an Alliance District so the additional funds will go to the towns and not the district. Beacon Falls has set its mill rate for 2012-13 already taking into account the additional funding. Prospect is scheduled to set the mill rate Tuesday at 7 p.m.

As far as the impact of the NCLB waiver is concerned, Region 16 interim Superintendent of Schools Tim James said he’s still waiting to hear the specifics from state education officials on the matter.