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State education reform focus delays federal waiver request

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The state has postponed its plan to request a waiver to key provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law while it works to put high-profile education reform efforts back on track.

The state Department of Education had planned to file its application for a waiver last week along with 26 states, but will instead file a waiver request in a third round of review in September.

Eleven states that filed in the first round were given "flexibility" in meeting mandates under NCLB, in exchange for adopting high standards and spelling out what other accountability system they would use. The 2001 No Child law requires that schools meet rising reading and math proficiency targets or face sanctions.

Stephen Schatz, head of the DOE’s Office of Strategic Reform, emphasized that Hawaii still plans to seek a waiver to NCLB provisions, which, if approved, would likely apply to the 2012-13 school year.

But he said the state needs the extra time because of issues surrounding Hawaii’s $75 million Race to the Top grant, which is at risk of being lost because of a host of delays. Federal reviewers will visit the islands this month for an in-depth review of the state’s progress in meeting reform efforts under Race to the Top.

Hawaii is the only Race to the Top winner that has yet to request a waiver to No Child Left Behind provisions. Hawaii was one of 10 winners (nine states and the District of Columbia) awarded Race funds in a second round of grants in 2010.

Delaware and Tennessee won money in the first round of Race to the Top grants.

Schatz said he wants to have a draft of the state’s NCLB waiver application available for public review in a few months. He added that seeking a waiver to NCLB provisions is "the right thing to do."

The U.S. Department of Education announced the waiver program as a way of addressing some of the biggest concerns with NCLB, which is overdue for congressional reauthorization and has been widely criticized for labeling too many schools making progress as failing.

Under the law, some of the state’s top public schools are facing sanctions for failing to meet annual proficiency targets, a situation that is frustrating teachers and principals and confusing parents.

Hawaii is also concerned about the law’s requirement that all students be at grade-level proficiency in math and reading within two years.

Last year, 62 percent of Hawaii’s 286 schools failed to meet No Child’s benchmarks for student reading and math proficiency, from 49 percent the year before. For most schools to meet adequate yearly progress last year, 72 percent of students had to test proficient in reading, and 64 percent proficient in math.

DOE officials say the annual benchmarks don’t reflect the considerable growth in student proficiency seen in many schools.

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