Almost half of Minnesota's schools will shed the "failing" label under a new plan that state leaders say will cut the achievement gap while giving struggling schools the flexibility they need.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education approved waiver requests from Minnesota and nine other states, freeing their schools from the "No Child Left Behind" mandate that requires 100 percent proficiency in math and reading -- a target many educators believe is impossible.

Last year, 1,056 out of 2,255 Minnesota schools were considered failing under the federal law. Of those, 34 were required to restructure, the most serious consequence of the law. More than half of those -- 19 -- are in the Minneapolis district. Six are in the St. Paul district.

"Under 'No Child Left Behind,' teachers have been forced to teach to tests, which do not accurately measure either individual student or school progress," said Gov. Mark Dayton, a former teacher. "Students spend too many hours preparing for, practicing and taking the tests."

Under Minnesota's new plan, schools still will be judged on the proficiency of their students in math and reading, but they also will have to show academic growth in individual students, a shrinking achievement gap between middle-class white students and their classmates and a strong high school graduation rate. The Minnesota Department of Education estimates that the state's achievement gap will be cut in half within six years as a result.

In the past, schools that repeatedly missed the mark under No Child Left Behind faced penalties, including forced staffing changes and being required to provide students with free after-school tutoring and busing to better schools.

'Priority schools'

Moving forward, the lowest-performing schools -- called "Priority Schools" -- must submit plans that show they can drastically alter the course, but it will be up them to decide how to do it.

Northport Elementary in the Robbinsdale District was scheduled to begin preliminary talks about restructuring next year as a consequence of being branded a failing school under current federal law.

With the waiver in place, it appears restructuring won't be necessary. Nonetheless, the school will continue to look for ways to improve, said Principal Patrick Smith.

"What the waiver does for us is it allows us to ask the question, 'Are we growing as a school?'" Smith said. "As an educator, to me, that's important."

Also important, school administrators say, is removing the stigma attached to a failing school.

"I've heard several people at our elementary school say that this [the waiver] allows them to celebrate their accomplishments, and not be seen a failure," said Jill Pearson, turnaround officer for Brooklyn Center schools. "That helps the psyche."

Losing ground?

Not everyone in Minnesota, however, supports the waiver.

The Minnesota Business Partnership argues that the waiver puts too much emphasis on growth, rather than meeting academic standards.

"What I like to compare it to is if they started giving out driver's licenses to people who fail the test but did a little better than they did the year before," said executive director Charlie Weaver.

By lowering academic standards, he said, Minnesota's workforce ultimately pays the price.

"Minnesota kids will be unable to compete against kids around the globe for the chance to work for some of our biggest and best companies," said Weaver.

Republicans in both the U.S. and state capitols have denounced the waiver process, arguing that the process allows the Department of Education and federal government to bypass the will of state legislatures and Congress.

In Minnesota, Reps. Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington, and Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton -- the chairs of the Minnesota House education committees -- sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last month asking the federal government to deny Minnesota's waiver application.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the House Education Committee, has, from the start, criticized the waiver process and considers the waivers a tool for Duncan and the federal Department of Education to skirt Congress and avoid the debate necessary to reform the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He has labeled the waivers an "overreach" into K-12 education that restricts the rights of local and state educators in exchange for relief from the strict demands of No Child Left Behind.

Of the 11 states that applied for a waiver, only New Mexico was denied. In addition to Minnesota, approvals were given to Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Minnesota's waiver is good through the 2013-2014 school year. At that time, the state can choose to reapply.

Staff writer Corey Mitchell contributed to this report. Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469