HELENA -- Montana's public schools may seek exemptions from the federal No Child Left Behind act, as offered last week by the Obama administration, but won't decide at least until next year, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said Tuesday.
Juneau, the state's top public school official, said the "waivers" offered by the administration have their own set of extensive requirements that won't come without costs.
"We know that all of these efforts take money," she said. "We have to get our arms around this. These things don't happen overnight, and they don't happen without money."
She also noted that the 2012 elections could scramble the political landscape in Washington, D.C., so it may be unwise for schools to commit to new initiatives that could end up being changed with new people in power.
No Child Left Behind, the federal school-reform law enacted under President George W. Bush, requires students in public schools to reach 100 percent proficiency in math and English by 2014, as measured by annual tests.
Schools around the country have complained that the goal is unreasonable, and that the law has other standards they consider onerous and inflexible.
About one-fourth of Montana's 821 schools already are falling short of the benchmarks for last school year, and those benchmarks were lowered as part of a compromise with federal education officials in August.
Without the compromise, another 155 schools would have missed the goals for the 2010-2011 school year.
Last week, the Obama administration said schools will get relief from the 100 percent proficiency goal if they do three things: Adopt new "college- and career-ready" academic standards; create a system for evaluating teachers and principals based on student performance; and have a plan to improve low-performing schools.
An initial deadline for applying for the waiver is November. Juneau said the state probably won't be ready then, but will look at whether it could apply by February, she said.
Juneau said Montana is already moving forward with the new academic standards, but that she wants to talk with schools and other parts of the education community about the other requirements, and whether they can or should be met in Montana.
The state began a program to help low-performing districts two years ago, and is in the second year with schools at Lame Deer, Frazer and Pryor.
"We've seen some great results in the partnerships with those schools," she said. "All of our schools saw pretty significant growth in their scores this year."
The Obama administration's waiver would require expansion of this program, with more schools, Juneau said.
Juneau, a Democrat, said the best approach on federal school requirements would be for Congress and the president to rewrite No Child Left Behind, "which everyone thinks is broken."
"They need to put their politics aside and focus on what kids need to be learning in our schools, and re-authorization of (the law)," she said. "I don't think schools are afraid of being accountable. It's the way it's implemented."
Juneau said she prefers a system that rates schools based on individual growth of students, and not focused mainly on arbitrary English and mathematics testing goals.