June 19, 2018
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Maine education chief says No Child Left Behind waiver likely to pass

By Robert Long, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen expressed confidence Thursday that federal officials will approve the state’s request for flexibility in meeting Elementary and Secondary Education Act standards.

“I’m very optimistic that we will have gotten to ‘yes’ by Election Day,” Bowen said during a Web and conference call with media Thursday afternoon.

Maine submitted the ESEA flexibility application to the U.S. Department of Education just before 5 p.m. Thursday.

The flexibility waiver request incorporates information obtained through an online public survey, four working groups formed by the Maine Department of Education and many public forums. An overview of the document is available on the department’s website.

Faced with congressional inaction on revising national education standards and an unattainable deadline of requiring schools to have 100 percent of their students achieve proficiency in math and English by 2014, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan encouraged states to apply for waivers that would free them from rigid adherence to those standards. With the submission of applications from Maine and New Hampshire on Thursday, more than 40 states will have submitted requests, at least 33 of which have been approved.

Bowen emphasized Thursday that, while among the application’s goals are to establish measurement standards that better reflect individual students’ intellectual growth and each school’s progress as measured against past performance rather than national benchmarks, the federal government “did not give us a blank check.”

The state still must test all students in third through eighth grade annually in math and English. “We need to continue to do annual assessments” and make public the results, Bowen said.

At present, schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress as defined by criteria established in the No Child Left Behind Act face increasingly harsh penalties, ranging from having to offer parents a choice of enrolling their children in another school to a complete restructuring of the school. Maine educators argue that those measurement tools provide a false picture of how schools in the state are performing and that the proposed remedies lack practical applications in Maine because they’re more suited to large urban districts.

If approved, the waiver would allow the state to implement a Maine-based accountability system for schools that receive Title 1 funds from the federal government to meet the needs of at-risk and low-income students. Under an assessment model Bowen discussed Thursday, 19 schools would be assigned “priority school” status based on their overall progress report card and 39 would be deemed “focus schools” based, in part, on progress gaps between subgroups within those schools.

“We want to create a lot of options for what districts can do to turn around, then work with them to improve,” Bowen said, contrasting that approach with the more Draconian system put in place as part of No Child Left Behind Act revisions made to federal education policy in the 2001.

The changes proposed in the ESEA waiver request apply specifically to schools that receive Title 1 funds. Bowen said Thursday that he plans to work with lawmakers and the LePage administration to introduce legislation that would create a parallel assessment and support structure for the 218 schools in Maine that do not receive Title 1 funds.

As they worked to draft the waiver request, state officials conferred regularly with U.S. Department of Education staff, Bowen said. That’s why he’s optimistic about quick approval.

He anticipates that a peer review team from the U.S. Department of Education will peruse the document and raise questions, which will be addressed at the state level by some of the same stakeholders who provided information for the application.

“The plan is that if we get the green light, we’ll spend the rest of the year on implementation,” said Bowen, who described the process that yielded the final version of the waiver request as “a great team effort.”

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