AUSTIN (AP) — Texas said Thursday it will seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to avoid some federal accountability standards imposed by the No Child Left Behind law, despite past worries about the possible strings attached to such a reprieve.
Texas had joined some of the nation's largest states in previously shunning the Obama administration's offer to avoid certain key mandates of the law, which was championed by former President George W. Bush.
No Child Left Behind went into effect in 2002 and its goal is for all children to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. But its standards were getting progressively more rigorous each year, and federal education officials suggested that waivers would give states more leeway to improve how they prepare and evaluate students.
"We strongly believe in accountability, we were one of the states on the leading edge of that movement," said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokesman for the Texas Education Agency.
"But we like our system better," she added, referring to Texas' own accountability standards for students, teachers and school districts.
Ratcliffe had said in previous months that Texas wasn't ruling out a waiver and would like greater flexibility from federal rules — but also preferred state control because of concerns the federal government might impose a national curriculum and national accountability standards.
Thursday's announcement comes during new Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams' first week on the job, and Ratcliffe said the agency was "waiting on him to arrive, so he made this decision."
No Child Left Behind has been up for renewal since 2007, but Congress has failed to authorize any revisions. In a letter to school districts, Williams wrote that the law's lack of "reauthorization in a timely manner has created an obsolete system that does not adequately reflect the accomplishments of the state's schools."
A centerpiece of Texas' educational accountability system is a new standardized testing system known as STAAR which was unveiled last year. Williams said that, combined with No Child Left Behind, means school districts would have been "required to meet and function within two different assessment and accountability systems."
His letter directs school districts to comment on the state's intent to seek the wavier over the next three weeks, and says the agency will use that input while finalizing its waiver request.
Josh Havens, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, said: "Our position has not changed, Texas has consistently said we would consider all the options and do what is in the best interest of Texas students and our districts."
He noted that Texas is not seeking a conditional waiver offered by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan "which would force Texas into the Obama Administration's one-size-fits-all federal education system that bypasses Congress." Instead, the state is seeking a reprieve under the general waiver authority.
State statistics released in July showed that just 44.2 percent of schools statewide met No Child Left Behind's "adequate yearly progress" standards compared to 47.8 percent, or 4,080 total Texas schools, that fell short of them. An additional 7.9 percent of schools were not evaluated.
When broken down by school district instead of individual campus, the figures were bleaker. Only 339 Texas public and charter school districts — or 27.6 percent — met the standards.
Those tallies were down dramatically from 66 percent of school campuses and 50 percent of districts in Texas that met the standards in 2011.
Ratcliffe said adequate yearly progress standards would still apply in Texas but that the state wants more options to help struggling districts improve, including easing federal requirements on sanctions for those districts that fail to meet them.
"We want to be able to almost customize some of the sanctions to meet the local needs," she said.
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