Hundreds of Minnesota schools would escape federal penalties and others would avoid being added to a fast-growing list of "failing" schools under a waiver the state has requested from the No Child Left Behind law.
The state, in a letter released Tuesday, outlined the parts of the law from which it wants to be released. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said this month that the Obama administration will exempt states from key provisions if they agree to reforms that have not yet been specified.
"We are not asking for relief from accountability," wrote state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. "Rather, we are seeking relief from a failed law that does not accurately measure our state's progress toward higher expectations and better academic achievement for all students."
Cassellius said the exemptions would offer temporary relief until Congress rewrites the law, which is four years overdue for renewal.
The state's waiver request is the latest addition to a growing body of evidence that No Child Left Behind's decade-long hold on schools is crumbling. At least a handful of other states say they'll also seek exemptions. Even before the waivers were announced, some states said they'd simply stop enforcing portions of the law, essentially daring the government to penalize them.
In Tuesday's letter, Cassellius asked for permission to freeze so-called "adequate yearly progress" targets at 2010 levels for three years while the state comes up with a more accurate way to measure school performance. Those AYP targets, which determine whether schools get a passing grade, have called for schools to post increasingly high test scores.
By 2014, the law calls for students nationwide to be proficient in reading and math -- a goal many critics say is unrealistic. In Minnesota last year, nearly half the state's public schools fell short. About 300 -- all of which receive Title I federal funding for low-income students -- face consequences that range from having to offer tutoring to restructuring.
Cassellius also asked for a waiver from financial sanctions on struggling Title I schools and districts. The waiver would allow the state to focus limited resources on its lowest-performing schools, she said.
"One of the great ironies of this law is that we are in the business of providing additional support to great schools incorrectly labeled as 'failures' at the expense of the very schools which need the most support," she wrote.
For schools in the early stages of federal consequences, which intensify over time, a waiver would free up federal funding that must now be set aside for measures such as free tutoring and transportation to other schools.
In St. Paul, for example, the school district spent about $3.5 million last year on tutoring mandated under the law -- even though, "unfortunately, we don't have very much evidence to show that it's very effective," said Matt Mohs, the district's Title I director.
If the waiver is approved, the state will not identify any new schools or districts for improvement until the requested waiver expires or Congress passes a new law, Cassellius said.
What will come next?
No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001, has been recognized for intensifying scrutiny of public education and forcing schools to pay more attention to the test scores of minority students and others who often fall through the cracks. But the law has come under increasing fire from critics who say it has created an unhealthy focus on testing and unfairly punished schools even if they're making progress.
States that receive waivers must commit to reforms supported by the White House. Details are to be made public next month, but federal officials have said the guidelines will reflect goals similar to those underlying the Obama administration's proposal for overhauling No Child Left Behind. Those include college- and career-ready standards, a strong use of data and "a more flexible and targeted accountability system."
Cassellius said Tuesday's letter does not commit the state to guidelines it hasn't seen. Based on Obama's proposal for fixing the law, though, "We believe that we already have those reforms in place," she said.
Former education commissioner Alice Seagren, who served under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said Tuesday she agrees that pursuing a waiver is "a good opportunity that we should be taking."
Tom Dooher, president of the statewide teachers' union, called the state's request "a very good start to getting some relief from this really misconceived [law] that's been really plaguing not only Minnesota schools but the nation's schools for quite some time."
But he and other school leaders are also waiting to see what specific reforms states will be asked to back in exchange for waivers.
"We don't want more regulation to relieve us of regulation," he said.
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016