AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine received a two-year reprieve Monday from some federal education requirements, allowing the state to move forward with its own changes designed to boost student achievement in struggling schools.

After nearly a year of negotiations with the U.S. government, Maine is joining 39 other states that received waivers from some provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, like the requirement that all students are reading and performing math at grade level or better by January or face penalties.

Gov. Paul LePage's administration heralded the waiver as a chance for the state to focus its attention and resources on schools that need it most.

"This flexibility from the federal government's one-size-fits-all approach allows our state to stay focused on working toward that through the comprehensive reforms we already have underway — rewarding good schools and helping the ones who aren't doing well," the Republican governor said in a statement.

No Child Left Behind, signed into law by President George W. Bush more than a decade ago, aims to require that all children perform are proficient in math and reading by 2014. There are penalties such as restructuring and school choice when those goals are not met.

But the state heard from district officials that those requirements were unreasonable and unattainable, Commissioner Stephen Bowen told reporters Monday. Currently only about 67 percent of Maine's elementary school students and 48 percent of high school students have achieved proficiency in math and reading, according to the department.

With the waiver, the state will aim over the next six years to cut in half the percentage of non-proficient students and raise the graduation rate to 90 percent at schools with disadvantaged learners, like children from low-income families or with limited English proficiency. That will put everyone on an aggressive — but more achievable — plan, Bowen said.

Maine's plan includes grading schools by five categories: priority, focus, monitor, progressing and meeting. The department says that will allow the grading of schools based on progress instead of just proficiency.

That list will be published by next month and is expected to include about 20 schools that need the most support, and 40 others that have some students performing very well and others performing poorly, said Rachelle Tome, the state's chief academic officer.

The state will be free from the requirement under the federal law that parents with children at low-performing schools are given the option to transfer their child to another public school, Tome said. That sometimes meant higher transportation costs for districts, she said.

Tome said districts and the state will also now have more control about how they direct their improvement efforts and differentiate what a district's needs are. The state will be waived from some provisions in the federal law that mandate where the school has to direct their funding, she said.

"Those are were the elements that were creating some real headaches for districts and making it hard to direct services for kids," she said.

The waiver also requires that the state continues its A through F grading system for schools themselves, which schools received for the first time this year. The next round of school report cards is expected this spring.


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