Montana schools won't seek new waiver from federal No Child Left Behind

2011-12-07T17:33:00Z 2011-12-08T00:25:17Z Montana schools won't seek new waiver from federal No Child Left BehindBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
December 07, 2011 5:33 pm  • 

HELENA — Montana’s top school official said Wednesday that the state won’t ask the Obama administration for new exemptions from the federal No Child Left Behind Act because they’re too expensive and don’t make sense for Montana.

Denise Juneau, the state superintendent of public instruction, said she made her decision after talks with school and other education officials around the state.

“It wasn’t a very long meeting,” she said. “We agreed pretty quickly it wasn’t a good fit for our state.”

While Montana is turning down the Obama administration’s offer to chart a new course on No Child Left Behind, Montana still must attempt to comply with the law, which requires students in public schools to reach 100 percent “proficiency” in math and English testing by 2014.

Juneau said those goals remain unrealistic for Montana or any state, and that she’ll likely be asking the federal government next year for some sort of adjustment or compromise as she did this year — if the law remains on the books.

She also said Montana will continue with its own education reforms and programs designed to improve student performance, such as “graduation matters” programs and new English and math standards adopted for this school year.

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said school districts fully support Juneau’s decision.

The Obama administration’s exemption process “is sort of an invitation to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire,” he said, because it’s not clear whether the administration has the authority to create new requirements for the law.

“Who knows if their vision is going to stand or not,” Melton said. “(The law) needs to be reauthorized and substantially overhauled.”

No Child Left Behind, enacted under President George W. Bush, is up for reauthorization, but Congress has failed to agree on a new bill.

The Obama administration said in September that states could apply for exemptions from No Child Left Behind requirements by submitting plans that would adopt new “college and career-ready” academic standards for students, create a system for evaluating teachers and principals, and have a plan to improve low-performing schools.

Juneau said the plan would cost Montana millions of dollars to develop and put in place, yet could be overruled by congressional action in the future.

“It is clear the strings attached to this option do not make sense for our state,” she said. “We cannot have yet another education-reform effort from Washington that doesn’t take into account the rural nature of our state and provide the flexibility states need to deliver a quality, public education.”

About one-fourth of Montana’s 821 schools 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 Montana schools would have missed the testing goals for the 2010-2011 school year.

Juneau has said she prefers a system that rates schools based on individual growth of students, rather than focusing on arbitrary English and mathematics testing goals.

“We’re doing a lot of reform efforts in our state,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “But we want to make sure we do it with our educators, and so it fits our schools.”

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