AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s receipt Thursday of a waiver from strict federal education guidelines means state government and local school districts can continue to develop their own plans to improve schools without the risk of losing $48 million in federal funding.

Maine Department of Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin said Thursday that the three-year waiver from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, formerly known as No Child Left Behind, frees the state from a time-consuming focus on standardized federal mandates and acknowledges years of steady work by the state leading up to Thursday’s announcement.

He reacted with relief.

“No one cookie-cutter formula fits every state,” Desjardin said in a telephone interview. “This allows us to approach and solve our own problems the way we see them here in the state. … We don’t have to fall into this cookie-cutter template made in Washington in 2001.”

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is built around a federal requirement — which is seen widely as impossible — that all schools move 100 percent of their students to proficiency in reading and math or lose funding. A waiver means that Maine can set its own goals — such as reducing nonproficiency percentages by 50 percent — and accomplish them through some of its own means.

“A lot of ESEA is geared to inner-city Detroit and Chicago,” said Desjardin. “We’ve repeatedly explained to [the U.S. Department of Education] that Maine doesn’t have an inner city. Our difficult issues are rural and a long way from the problems in inner cities.”

Maine was first granted an ESEA waiver in 2013 but was notified in late 2014 that its waiver recertification request had been denied. That put the state in danger of losing $48 million in annual federal funding in the “Title 1” program, which supports schools with certain percentages of financially challenged students.

A recertification failure also would have attached strings to another $20 million in federal funding, requiring it to be spent on specific programs. Thursday’s waiver approval means the state’s plan to implement Maine-based initiatives to improve school performance has been accepted and will remain in place for the next three years.

Among the reasons for the federal government’s rejection of Maine’s application in 2014 were concerns about how the state tests student proficiency and teacher and principal performance. Those issues were resolved with the passage of LD 392, which was signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage in March, just before the deadline to do so.

Desjardin said that in addition to avoiding the loss of federal funding, the waiver gives Maine more relaxed guidelines about how to spend federal dollars. That allows Maine to shift federal resources, for example, toward science and math in one school and toward language arts in another.

“New Hampshire got the same letter we did just before Christmas,” said Desjardin. “They got a one-year waiver, with conditions. The fact that we got a three-year waiver says a lot about the folks here in the department and in Maine.”

Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said the waiver doesn’t change the fact that federal law still requires standardized testing of students to measure their progress and rate their teachers’ and principals’ performance.

“This waiver, which is the result of a concerted effort to get the U.S. Department of Education to recognize the work that Maine educators have done toward developing and educator effectiveness plan and student testing plan, will give Maine professionals more time to complete the very complex and convoluted task of setting up fair and effective ways to evaluate our students and our educators,” wrote Kilby-Chesley in an email to the Bangor Daily News.

Maine will receive $213 million in federal K-12 education funding this year, which will be matched by about $980 million in state government funding. When added to local contributions by towns and cities, Mainers will spend some $2.1 billion on its public schools this year.


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.